Animal Factory: comprehensive, but maybe too much

March 20, 2010

David Kirby’s Animal Factory is the most comprehensive accounting of the issues surrounding the American factory farming system that I’ve come across. Spanning about 15 years of “development” of modern agriculture (primarily hog and dairy,) Animal Factory focuses on three families as they evolve into activists to first protect their own communities and later other parts of the United States where large farms have gathered.

The book shines in its treatment of how concentrated populations of animals produce more manure than can be sustainably dispersed in the surrounding areas, which leads to lagoons (big pits of poop) and oversaturated fields, both of which can (and do) either run off or overflow into local water systems as well as create serious air quality issues for neighbouring residents.

It’s here that the focus on the three communities really helps get across a sense of the human side of the problems with factory farming. Much of the book is delivered in a narrative style, with conversations among the “characters” reconstructed. I felt like these were real people with real, possibly insurmountable problems, and through that I was able to really empathize with those impacted in a way that a simple description of the kinds of issues they might face can’t accomplish.

The book isn’t without its problems, however. The story is presented in a mostly chronological manner, which I found a bit challenging with a story that covers three “characters” in three different states. Splitting a story like this is hard enough in a work of fiction, and in a drier non-fiction setting I think it’s much more difficult and I don’t think Kirby pulled it off. There were bits of foreshadowing that would have worked well in a nail biting thriller (“The War on Terror was engaged… Agribusiness interests would start comparing groups like CARE, FARM, and Waterkeeper – incredibly – to terror outfits like Al Quaeda. Nonviolent farmwives would be likened to Osama bin Laden.”) but these proved distracting when the story didn’t return to the idea for an extended period of time (in the terrorism example, about 70 pages later, for instance.)

Ultimately, though, I think the biggest problem Animal Factory has is that it suffers from “kitchen sink” syndrome. At its core, this is a book about the impact of factory farming on three American families, and yet the author seems to have gone on a crusade to make sure each and every piece of his research made it into the final work. Sometimes these links are tenuous, like having one of the families read about some issue, or just dropped in, possibly to provide greater context. If anything, I think this speaks to the breadth of the problems posed by factory farming, but I really think Animal Factory could have been edited down to a much smaller size, which would have made it more accessible to a wider audience.

And that’s the real shame of it: I suspect that the people who will read this book are the people who are already pretty aware of the stuff that’s discussed in it.  At almost 500 pages, I don’t feel like this is a book that you can lend a co-worker who’s curious about what’s wrong with factory farming.  To be fair, that might not be what the author or publisher is hoping for, but it’s something I would have loved to see, and that’s probably true for you if you’ve read this much into this review as well: at the risk of going on a cynical “people just don’t read that much” tangent, I really don’t know if a casual reader would make it past the first 150 pages or so.

All that said, if you’re looking for talking points about the problems with industrial-scale farming, the book’s weaknesses become strengths, and this really is the best book out there at the moment, particularly regarding manure management. I’ve been following animal agriculture for more than 10 years now, and there were a lot of things in the book that I didn’t know. My main regret is that it doesn’t feel like a book that’s going to change the world by opening minds and shifting shopping habits. However, as a tool for others who aim to do just that, I think it’s got potential.

For more information on Animal Factory, including additional factoids and news links, you can check out the official website, or you can read other reviews (and buy it) on This book won’t make the top ten for most of you reading this review, but for some of you, it might be just what you’re looking for.

Disclosures etc: I received my review copy for free and if anyone buys anything via the links in this review Taste Better will receive a small commission. If you’d rather not support our work here, you can use this non-commission link, or perhaps better still, contact your local bookstore or library.

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