Feb 17 2011

Part 1: The Pathological Mindset of the CAFO

Fittingly enough, Part 1 of The CAFO Reader starts from the true beginning of the development of industrial meat production.  Rather than explore the physical formation of the first factory farm (though, that is touched upon briefly), the five authors investigate the underlying justification of CAFOs through explorations of the mechanistic philosophy of Galileo, the roles of both religion and science, and current competitive rhetoric.

Part 1 is a necessarily slow read, but I came away with a better understanding of the philosophic and scientific theory that led to the creation of CAFOs.

We are all familiar with daily examples of questionable moral justifications or cognitive dissonance.  These justifications vary from the relatively benign (“It’s okay to gossip about this person, as he was really mean to me.”) to the more severe ("I may be embezzling but I am very generous with my money!”).  The common justification explaining the abuses of a CAFO sound something like this:

Livestock are here for our benefit.  Without a cheap and abundant food supply many would go hungry.  Why should we care about the welfare of animals that are going to be slaughtered regardless?

Or like this:

This is an inevitable stage of efficiency.


There is Man…and then there is everything else.  Every other life form is beneath us.

These views are specieist.  The interests of humanity rank over the well being and flourishing of other species.  Philosopher Rene Descartes championed this view in the 17th century, arguing that “nature existed as a toolbox for human industry”.  He explained cries and writhing as simple reflexes and eventually in the minds of many, animals became soulless commodities. In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham countered by reframing Descartes’ reasoning: the question isn’t can they reason, but can they suffer?

The idea that our relationship with other members of the animal kingdom has moral relevance goes back millennia, including in the Bible.  For example, the Old Testament forbids unnecessary pain and suffering of animals.

Raising animals used to be referred to as “animal husbandry”. “To husband” means to use with care, to keep, to save, to conserve.  Animal husbandry is now referred to as “animal science”.  New language serves to validate an increasingly mechanistic mindset, where the focus isn’t on care or conservation but on efficiency, profit, and competition.  Wendell Berry aptly notes that mechanical farming makes it easy to think mechanically about the land and its creatures, and prevents us from recognizing animals as fellow creatures.

The current EPA definition of a large CAFO is as follows:

•      1,000 cattle

•      2,500 swine

•      55,000 turkeys

•      125,000 chickens

•      82,000 layers

Specific CAFOs tend to be heavily concentrated by geography.

Dairies: California and Idaho

Cattle: Texas and Kansas

Broilers: Chesapeake Bay, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina

Eggs: Iowa, Ohio

Pig: Iowa, North Carolina

Modern industrial slaughterhouses kill at an incredible pace, “processing” as many as 360,000 pigs a day.  CAFOs also generate waste of epic proportions.  According to Daniel Imhoff, it’s not uncommon for a CAFO on 100 acres to generate the same amount of sewage as a city of 100,000 people.  The key environmental difference between the city and the CAFO is that CAFOs aren’t required to set up carefully monitored sewage treatment plants.  Instead, the manure lagoons are allowed to seep into our groundwater and evaporate into our atmosphere.

Beyond the lack of regulations regarding waste, CAFOs toe a fine line between factory regulations and farm regulations, embracing whichever definition is to their benefit.

Consider this:

Because CAFOs are regarded as farms, not industries, they have a free pass on certain air and water emissions.  And yet, despite being regarded as farms, the Animal Welfare Act doesn’t apply to their animals (as it does for pets, exhibition animals, and research animals).

Factory farming has no traditions, rules, or decency.  It’s an abandonment of natural animal husbandry and rural values:  we have abdicated our moral compass to the owners of factory food production.  For those who argue “This is an inevitable stage of efficiency”, these authors respond by saying that we could treat many other things in life more efficiently if we didn’t have ethical restraints.  Are there no ethical boundaries anymore?

As Matthew Scully says:

“If reason and morality is what sets us apart from other animals, THEN reason and morality must guide us in how we treat them.  What makes a human a human is precisely the ability to understand that the suffering of an animal is more important than the taste of a treat.”

We can’t just take from these creatures—we must give them something in return.  Whether or not we choose to eat them, we should be able to agree that animals deserve certain species-specific freedoms like the ability to turn around, stand up, and breathe fresh air.  (And yes, that is an incredibly low bar.)