Many Americans have no idea where their food comes from, and many have no desire to find out.
That is unfortunate.
Every bite we take has had some impact on the natural environment, somewhere in the world. As the planet grows more crowded, and more farmers turn to industrialized methods to feed millions of new mouths, that impact will only worsen.
The willful ignorance of our own food’s provenance is curious, given our Discovery Channel-like fascination with the way in which everything else in our modern world is made. Some consumers will spend hours online reading up on cars, cosmetics, or clothes, searching out the most meticulously crafted or environmentally healthy products they can find, then run down to the supermarket and load their carts with bacon, butter, chicken, and eggs without thinking for a second where — or how — any of those goods were produced.
This is starting to change, of course. More Americans are coming to realize that the modern production of food — especially to provide for our affluent, protein-rich diet — has a direct and sometimes negative impact on the environment, the well-being of animals, rural communities, and human health itself. Some have joined in a contemporary consumer revolt of sorts that has put the corporate food industry on the defensive in recent years.
At the center of the storm are the large-scale, mechanized megafarms where hundreds of thousands of cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys are fed and fattened for market, all within the confines of enclosed buildings or crowded outdoor lots.
Government and industry call these massive compounds "confined [or concentrated] animal feeding operations," or CAFOs (usually pronounced KAYfohs), though most people know them simply as "factory farms." Chances are you have seen them from above, while flying in an airplane: long White buildings lined up in tightly packed rows of three, four, or many more.
CAFOs are where most of our animal protein — our milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, eggs, chicken, turkey, bacon, sausage, cold cuts, ribs, pork chops, and, increasingly, beef and fish — comes from these days. Old MacDonald’s farm — with his big red barn and clucking chicks in the yard — is quickly fading away into a romanticized past. Today, MacDonald would most likely be working as a contract grower for some conglomerate, raising tens of thousands of animals inside giant enclosures according to strict instructions dictated by the company, which typically owns the livestock but is not responsible for the thousands of tons of waste left behind before the survivors are trucked off to slaughter.
Large companies with kitchen-table names like Perdue, Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill, ADM, and Land O’Lakes now control much of the poultry and livestock production in the United States. They own the animals, they control the all-important processing and packing plants, they often operate their own distribution networks, and they sell an array of brands to consumers in the Supermarket.
This "vertical integration" model of production — some would call it an old-fashioned, illegal trust in need of a Teddy Roosevelt-style buster — leaves small and independent growers at such an obvious disadvantage that many of them give up animal agriculture altogether. Two percent of U.S. livestock facilities now raise 40 percent of all animals,1 and the vast majority of pigs, chickens, and dairy cows are produced inside animal factories.2
Livestock and poultry are very big business in America. Like all industries, agribusiness has barons that wield extraordinary political and economic clout, with billions at their disposal to spend on K Street lobbying, local and national political campaigns, saturation advertising, feel-good PR (see: "California, happy cows"), and other means of creating a favorable business climate for themselves.
And like many big industries, factory farms are major contributors to air, water, and land pollution. Science and government have concluded without a doubt that CAFOs are responsible for discharging millions of tons of contaminants from animal manure into the environment every year — much of it illegally.
Unlike the steel, auto, or coal industries, livestock operations are not subject to the same stringent rules, regulations, laws, and controls on environmental discharges. After all, what could be more important than the guarantee of an abundant, safe, and affordable food supply? What could be more sacrosanct in American legend and law than the farms and farmers who make sure our food gets to the national dinner table night after night?
Besides, how could a farm be considered a factory? There are no smokestacks on a farm. There are no chemical plants or refineries, and very few vehicles. Where, then, is all that supposed pollution coming from, and how much of a problem could there actually be?
Each year, the United States produces more than one ton of "dry matter" (the portion remaining after water is removed) animal waste for every resident,3 and animal feeding operations yield one hundred times more waste than all U.S. human sewage treatment plants.4
While human sewage is treated to kill pathogens, animal waste is not. Hog manure has ten to one hundred times more concentrated pathogens than human waste,5 yet the law would never permit untreated human waste to be kept in vast "lagoons," or sprayed onto fields, as is the case with manure.
Manure can contain pathogens, antibiotics, drug-resistant bacteria, hormones, heavy metals, and other compounds that can seriously impact human health, aquatic life, and wildlife when introduced into the environment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay produces one million tons of manure a year, enough to fill a football stadium "to the top row, including all the concourses, locker rooms, and concession areas."6
Agricultural waste is the number-one form of well-water contaminants in the United States, where at least 4.5 million people are exposed to dangerously high nitrate levels in their drinking water. 7
A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study of well water in nine Midwestern states showed that 13 percent of the supply had nitrate levels above the EPA standard of ten milligrams per liter.8
Feedlot odors contain some 170 separate chemicals,9 many of them known to cause respiratory ailments, diarrhea, depression, violent behavior, and other health problems.
Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than cars, a UN report warns.10
Animal-factory proponents say that CAFOs are the most cost-effective method in the world of producing meat, milk, and eggs. They credit modern American agriculture with yielding the cheapest food in human history — which is hard to refute — and also the safest, which is debatable.
Animal industrialists say that by confining poultry and livestock to CAFOs — as opposed to letting them roam free on ranges, pastures, and fields — they are providing warm and clean environments where farm animals can thrive, free from the threats of the elements, predators, or even attacks from other farm animals. The delivery of food, water, and veterinary care becomes more efficient, they contend, and animals can be moved more quickly to market, increasing profitability.
Besides, according to these industrialists, consumers demand cheap, lean, uniform cuts of meat, and using CAFOs is the only possible way to deliver that.
But animal-factory opponents, whose ranks are growing — they are not only consumers, but scientists, politicians, and farmers, as well — charge that the only way CAFO production can be profitable is by passing along, or "externalizing," certain costs associated with raising so many animals in such a small place.
In 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released a landmark report on CAFOs. It reached some very sobering conclusions about their impact on our health, the environment, rural communities, farm workers, food safety, animal welfare, and the looming threat of evolving microbes — including antibiotic-resistant E. coli, MRSA, and, of course, swine flu virus.
The Pew report reminds us that the price of protein, given the externalities of animal-factory production, often goes well beyond the price tag in your grocer’s aisle.
"These ‘externalities’ may include anything from changes in property values near industrial farming operations, to health costs from polluted air, water, and soil, and spreading resistant infections or diseases of animal origin, to environmental degradation or cleanup costs — all of which are ‘paid’ by the public," the Pew Commission said, "even though they are not included in the cost of producing or buying the meat, poultry, eggs, and milk that modern industrial animal agriculture provides."11
Animal Factory is not strictly an anti-CAFO book, though many in the agricultural community will perceive it that way. I do not call for an end to industrial animal production, nor do I draw any personal conclusions myself. Informed consumers — whether of food or of information — are vital to a healthy democracy. I would never dream of telling people what to eat or, more important, what not to eat. But we all have a responsibility, even an ethical obligation, to know where our food comes from, and what impact its production has on the environment and public health, before we take it home and fry it up in a pan.
Wherever possible, I have tried to include voices from the animal-production industry and other CAFO supporters. Many farmers believe that industrial animal production is the only option open to them if they are to remain in farming, and they are grateful to the large companies for providing steady contracts and a stable economic environment for them to survive.
One powerful argument for agribusiness is that it offers a lower retail price of food to shoppers. For consumers, factory-farmed meat, milk, and eggs are usually considerably more affordable than their organic, free-range, or "sustainably produced" counterparts. Most working families do not have the luxury of buying high-end, "boutique" protein. Some opponents of CAFOs would counterargue that families should simply cut down on the animal products they buy.
I am not a vegetarian, and you will occasionally find me in line for fast food, so I have no business telling others how to eat. Food — like sex, politics, and religion — is an intensely personal, emotional, and complicated subject.
Moreover, farmers are not evil people. The farmers I got to know, including those who operate CAFOs, seemed to genuinely care about the environment, the animals, their communities, and the quality and safety of the food they produced.
On the other hand, I cannot dismiss or forget what I witnessed firsthand in my three years of reporting this story. I met with people living within smelling distance of animal factories in the chicken belts of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, in the hog belt of North Carolina, in the upper Midwestern CAFO states of Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, and in the arid western dairy regions of Texas, central California, and the Yakima Valley of Washington.
Everywhere I went, the story was the same: CAFOs had fouled the air, spoiled the water, threatened property values, changed the face of local agriculture, and made life miserable for thousands of people, though certainly not everybody.
Sadly, I could only tell a fraction of the stories I heard. This book is not an encyclopedic history of all forms of animal production in the United States. Many people, for example, will notice and perhaps criticize the paucity of information about the raising of beef cattle and farmed fish in America. Though I am not trying to somehow "clear" beef of any responsibility, I do think that its production is the least problematic of all CAFO-related protein; most U.S. beef cattle are still owned and raised by independent producers — on open pasture, grassland, or through grazing permits on federal land — and spend only the last few months of their lives being fattened on grain in massive feedlots, which most certainly qualify as CAFOs, with all their attendant environmental issues. (Another reason I did not write about beef feedlots more is that, aside from residents of Yakima Valley, they were not an issue for any of the people I profiled.)
As for fish farms, they certainly present challenges that keep some environmentalists up at night, including farmed-salmon escapees that introduce harmful pests such as sea lice and viral diseases that infect wild fish populations. One could write an entire book on the environmental impact of fish farms alone. On the other hand, I have never heard anyone complain about foul odors or noxious gases coming from fish farms.
Animal factories of every stripe are currently under fire. So what does that mean for the future of CAFOs? Will they be reformed into universal acceptability? Will they be litigated into oblivion? Will they be driven out of the country? The truth is, none of those things is likely.
Only time will tell how this dramatic saga plays out. But humankind may not have the last word on whether CAFOs will be with us in twenty years.
That decision will belong to nature.
And nature did not intend for animals to live by the hundreds or thousands, crammed together inside buildings, raised with pharmaceutical products, with no access to grass, sunlight, or the clean, healthy scent of outdoor air.
1. USDA Agricultural Research Service, "National Program 206: Manure and Byproduct Utilization Action Plan," 2005, http://www.ars.usda.gov/research/projects/projects.htm?ACCN_NO=409616&showpars=true&fy=2008.
2. USDA National Statistics Service, "Farms, Land in Farms, and Livestock Operations," 2006, http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do?documentID=1259.
3. USDA Agricultural Research Service, "FY-2005 Annual Report: Manure and Byproduct Utilization," 2006, http://www.ars.usda.gov/research/programs/programs.htm?np_code=206&docid=13337.
4. Charles P. Gerba and James E. Smith, Jr., "Sources of Pathogenic Microorganisms and Their Fate During Land Application of Wastes," Journal of Environmental Quality 34, no. 1 (2004): 42-48, http://jeq.scijournals.org/cgi/reprint/34/1/42.pdf.
5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Detecting and Mitigating the Environmental Impact of Fecal Pathogens Originating from Confined Animal Feeding Operations: Review," EPA/600/R-06/021, September 2005, http://www.epa.gov/nrmrl/pubs/600r06021/600r06021.htm.
6. J. Warrick and T. Shields, "Md. Counties Awash in Pollution-Causing Nutrients," Washington Post, October 3, 1997.
7. B. T. Nolan, B. C. Ruddy, K. J. Hitt, and D. R. Helsel, "A National Look at Nitrate Contamination of Ground Water," Water Conditioning and Purification 39, no. 12 (1998): 76-79, http://www.water.usgs.gov/nawqa/nutrients/pubs/wcp_v39_no12/.
8. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Environmental Health, "A Survey of the Quality of Water Drawn from Domestic Wells in Nine Midwest States," September 1998, http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/statistics/environmental.
9. Confined Livestock Air Quality Committee of the USDA Agricultural Air Quality Task Force, Air Quality Research and Technology Transfer, "Risk Assessment Evaluation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations," July 12, 2000, 7, http://www.epa.gov/nrmrl/pubs/600r04042/600r04042.pdf.
10. H. Steinfeld et al, Livestock’s Long Shadow-Environmental Issues and Options (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006), http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.
11. Pew Commision on Industrial Animal Production, "Putting Mean on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America," a Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2008, http://www.ncifap.org
The above is an excerpt from the book Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment by David Kirby. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2010 David Kirby, author of Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment
David Kirby is a Huffington Post contributor and author of the New York Times bestseller Evidence of Harm, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for Best Book, and finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein award for Excellence in Journalism. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
David Kirby’s new book, "Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poutlry Farms on Humans and the Environment," will be released by St. Martins Press on March 2, 2010.