Exposing Factory Farming Through Art

Often when we talk about factory farming, it is difficult to convey the magnitude of the problem. The scale is so large that our brains have a hard time conceiving the numbers. The effects are hidden in scientific papers that are long and indecipherable to the average consumer. A new exhibit at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia seeks to lay out this information in a format we can easily understand. By mixing the science with art, CAFO Culture: Visualizing Factory Farming in Virginia accomplishes just that.


Most Americans remain unaware of how food is produced in the 21st century - that it comes from facilities and factories, not farms. As the artist and curators learned while working on their pieces, this lack of understanding is by design. The artists were originally hoping to gain access to factory farms, but most of the photographs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) used in the exhibit were taken from behind fences, across the street, or from aerial fly-overs. One cannot simply walk through the gates of a Smithfield Pork facility.

Much of the exhibit is centered on mapping. This allows viewers to see where these farms are concentrated throughout the state – illustrating, for instance, that the CAFOs on the Delmarva Peninsula in Virginia produce over one million chickens per week. It also makes an effort to show how these facilities impact the surrounding environment by mapping the runoff of E. coli, nitrates and ammonia.

The show came together through the collaborative efforts of William and Mary professors Alan Braddock, Tim Russel, Bongkeun Song, graduate student Lindsay Garcia, and many others. It was made possible by a grant from the Commonwealth Center for Energy and the Environment.

Exhibits like this are uncommon but important. Animal agriculture is one of the most destructive industries in the country, and it’s one that most Americans end up supporting by default, simply because they are unaware. They are unaware that across the U.S. we raise 9 billion animals a year for food and that 99% of those animals are coming from factory farms. They’re unaware that the system that is pumping out cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets is also pumping out more greenhouse gasses than the emissions from from all cars, trucks, planes, and trains in the world. Most importantly, they are unaware that we can take meaningful action. We can choose not to support factory farming by boycotting the products these companies produce and switching to plant based alternatives instead. Through art and advocacy, we can engage and empower people to make this change.

Written by David Phinney, FFAC's director in Richmond, Virginia.


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