Visions of white clapboard houses with bright red barns have been a staple of Americans’ visions of farming for centuries. The farmer diligently working in his fields to produce food and material for the nation’s bread basket was a worthy subject of photos, paintings and stories throughout the last couple of centuries in America.
The tales of our country’s founding speak of equality and of simple beginnings. The truth is, though, our country was founded by big business farmers who, for the time, were operating large production farms.
In short order, at least in terms of the birthing of a nation, small farms and family farming became a way of life and worthy value. As always, the pendulum swings and big business got back into “family farming” with a vengeance. This has been followed by significant environmental impacts and exposure to humans of some very dangerous byproducts.
In the 1970’s “CAFOs” began springing up in rural America and even in some suburban areas. The term CAFO stands for: concentrated animal feeding operations. These operations are intended to be low cost, high production methods for raising animals and profiting from the manufacturing of animals: milk, eggs, and meat.
Some CAFOs are vertical integration operations and control every aspect of production. Others use poorly trained and ill equipped people to raise the animals for the larger processing CAFOs.
If you have a CAFO near you, it is likely to be obvious. The smells and cacophony of sounds made by very large populations of animals in very small spaces is obvious. These operations take animal excrement and concentrate it for later use or sale as fertilizer. So, often, in addition to the normal excrement byproduct, large amounts of “stored” excrement can be found piled on the ground at these operations. In addition, piles of animal carcasses awaiting hauling and disposal can often be found on the land of these CAFOs.
Farms produce waste and release chemicals into the environment; it is simply unavoidable. But, in traditional farming those materials are generally released in small amounts and across larger areas. In concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFA), the chemicals and other toxins are released in higher quantities and in much, much smaller areas. The potpourri of dangers include:
- Toxic microbes; including pfiesteria piscicida. Blamed for algae blooms in water and suspected of causing serious human illnesses, including: memory loss, headaches, rashes, upper respiratory irritations, muscle complications and gastrointestinal complaints.
- Toxic chemicals; including high concentrations of pesticides
- Antibiotic resistant bacteria; including MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus)
- Trace elements; including arsenic and copper harmful to human health
- Gases from decomposing feces; including
In addition to the impact on humans, the environment is impacted adversely:
- Deforestation for animal feed production
- Unsustainable pressure on land for production of high-protein/high-energy animal feed
- Pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer manufacture and use for feed production
- Unsustainable use of water for feed-crops, including groundwater extraction
- Pollution of soil, water and air by nitrogen and phosphorus from fertiliser used for feed-crops and from manure
- Land degradation (reduced fertility, soil compaction, increased salinity, desertification)
- Loss of biodiversity due to eutrophication, acidification, pesticides and herbicides
- Worldwide reduction of genetic diversity of livestock and loss of traditional breeds
- Species extinctions due to livestock-related habitat destruction (especially feed-cropping)
Finally, but perhaps more terrible, is the impact on the animals who are subjects of the mass incarceration for these CAFAs:
- Close confinement systems (cages, crates) or lifetime confinement in indoor sheds
- Discomfort and injuries caused by inappropriate flooring and housing
- Restriction or prevention of normal exercise and most of natural foraging or exploratory behavior
- Restriction or prevention of natural maternal nesting behavior
- Lack of daylight or fresh air and poor air quality in animal sheds
- Social stress and injuries caused by overcrowding
- Health problems caused by extreme selective breeding and management for fast growth and high productivity
- Reduced lifetime (longevity) of breeding animals (dairy cows, breeding sows)
- Fast-spreading infections encouraged by crowding and stress in intensive conditions
- Male chicks, which are too scrawny for meat and incapable of laying eggs, may be liquidated as inventory
The Environmental Protection Agency passed new regulations in 2008 to update exiting law in existence in 2003. In addition, there are regulations under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) portions of EPA Guidelines. Local zoning ordinances, health regulations, and Nuisance laws apply to these mass animal manufacturing operations. These laws are not well enforced and typically are only responsive to complaints filed against specific operations.
Sadly, little actual laws are applied on the federal level to protect animals victimized for the sake of profit. In addition less than half of the states in the US have any laws protecting the welfare of “farming animals”. Although modest progress has been made in protecting domestic pets from abuse and torture, farm animals remain largely unprotected victims.