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Vegan concerns for environment involve the ecological impact of livestock industry in terms of resource consumption (grains, land, water), pollution, greenhouse gases emissions and loss of biodiversity (see this answer).

However from personal conversations, where meat-eaters argue small scale farming is more sustainable, I got the doubt: is there any difference between small scale and industrial farming?

Of course I'm interested in the evaluation of ecological impact per unit or per ton of "product", since total impact is obviously different. Are there studies or publications assessing that small scale farming is more sustainable than industrial production? Or are the two forms equally destructive for the environment?

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    Good question, but can you be more specific on what kind of small scale farming you mean? Organic? How small? I think industrial, large scale farming is similar in different places, but smaller farms tend to do things on a more individual basis. – Turion Feb 9 '17 at 13:26
  • I don't mean to say that your question is too broad, just that you might be able to phrase more exactly what you're asking. Maybe you want a statistics on the estimated green house impact, with a histogram that sorts farms by their size? – Turion Feb 9 '17 at 13:28
  • @Turion I accept any kind of answer since I don't know whether the matter has been studied enough to be selective as you say. – Attilio Feb 10 '17 at 0:18
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Industrial farming exists because it provides improved efficiency leading to a lower production cost. This can be seen in measures like land use. It obviously uses less land to house cattle in a confined indoor space than over a large grazing area. Industrial farms also have greater control over livestock feed, and can make use of high quality grains. High quality grains may require 4 to 5 pounds of feed per pound of live animal weight compared to over 20 pounds of feed for a low quality grain (Wikipedia). Additionally, higher feed yields can be produced with intensive crop growing techniques than what will grow naturally in grazed land.

While not comparing small scale farms to industrial farms, an comparison of 1977 farming practices to 2007 practices supports the conclusion that increases in farming intensity reduce environmental impacts. (source)

Modern beef production requires considerably fewer resources than the equivalent system in 1977, with 69.9% of animals, 81.4% of feedstuffs, 87.9% of the water, and only 67.0% of the land required to produce 1 billion kg of beef. Waste outputs were similarly reduced, with modern beef systems producing 81.9% of the manure, 82.3% CH4, and 88.0% N2O per billion kilograms of beef compared with production systems in 1977. The C footprint per billion kilograms of beef produced in 2007 was reduced by 16.3% compared with equivalent beef production in 1977.

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This is both very interesting and a tough question.

Short answer

I do not think the comparison can be made directly.

  • While industrial livestock production is more efficient (see nloewen's answer in terms of space, some pollution indicators and water consumption, it is less sustainable / not sustainable.

  • While small animal farming is less efficient, it is more sustainable and also helps people reducing meat intake (higher prices, you cannot possible have all the required land just for small farms and still maintain the same production volume etc.)

Conclusion: Considering all criteria, small scale farming is clearly more sustainable than industrial farming which also encourages an exaggerated consumption of meat that is beyond recommended values by artificial low prices (maintained through subsidies, not covering for environmental effects etc.).

I will add references and more details in the long answer.

Long answer

According to this article, there are many aspects that make industrial farming more harmful than small scale:

  • health issues: overuse of antibiotics
  • environmental issues: overapplication of manure can lead to contamination of water
  • animal waste issues: there is too much manure concentrated in one area for the land to handle, manure storage emits gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane. These gases can cause noxious odours, as well as a suite of health problems
  • water waste: industrial operations use huge amounts of water for liquefying manure, flushing barns, and drinking water for animals
  • soil issues: excess nitrogen and phosphorous left behind can not only alter soil characteristics, and thus productivity, but also run off into nearby streams and rivers and affect water supplies
  • fuel issues: intensive livestock production contributes 80% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions
  • transportation issues: industrial-scale livestock production is usually centralized and therefore requires extensive transportation; as the distance food travels increases, so does the role of chemicals and processing to reduce spoilage before the food reaches the marketplace
  • worker issues: workers are inside the barn where air quality is at its worst. Among the most serious hazards faced by workers is routine exposure to dust and gases emitted from sources of concentrated manure.

This article deals with Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. While intensive agriculture practices sustainability is not clear

Large-scale facilities are economically competitive because of production efficiencies73, but have health and environmental costs that must be better quantified to assess their potential role in sustainable agriculture.

, small farms have a higher potential of sustainability:

ruminant production on grasslands takes advantage of the high efficiency of ruminant guts to convert low-quality forage into high-protein human foods, including dairy products and beef. When appropriately stocked and managed, grassland–ruminant ecosystems are an efficient, sustainable method of producing high-quality protein with minimal environmental impacts.

This article explains why the actual cost of industrial meat production is artificially low and provides a possible solution towards sustainability:

Public policies that encourage a shift toward a more plant-based diet could bolster individual actions in this area. These policies should include preventing factory farms from polluting and requiring them to pay cleanup costs when they do pollute. Without such policies, the products of factory farms will continue to be artificially cheap, in that prices will not reflect their impact on the environment, human health, animal welfare, or the economic and social stability of rural communities. Both the individual and collective actions described above would hasten the shift toward a more sustainable agriculture, which is an important component in the larger transition to a sustainable economy.

One personal act that can have a profound impact on these issues is reducing meat consumption. To produce 1 pound of feedlot beef requires about 2,400 gallons of water and 7 pounds of grain (42). Considering that the average American consumes 97 pounds of beef (and 273 pounds of meat in all) each year, even modest reductions in meat consumption in such a culture would substantially reduce the burden on our natural resources.

This article deals with the debate about sustainability of small farms vs. industrial farming.

Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

Unfortunately, the article does not provide any references, so its content is arguable. But it is clear that small/organic farming requires much more space than industrial one, giving the same amount of meat is produced. However, we do not have to reach this space usage: if small/organic farming is used more and industrial farming is forced to play "fair", the meat production volume will get lower.

So, in real terms, small farming cannot possible reach the volume of industrial farming, thus generating less environment harmful effects.

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