Jun 21 2011

Finally: Putting the CAFO out to Pasture

The CAFO Reader has been a long (clearly, I started over four months ago!) and challenging read.  I couldn’t breeze through each section,  listlessly absorbing information.  I labored over each essay, taking notes in my attempt to grasp the complicated negatives of this overarching system.

Here’s a quote I recently read by Barry Estabrook, author of soon-to-be-read (by me) Tomatoland:

Organic, local, seasonal, fresh, sustainable, fair trade -- the words have become platitudes that skeptics associate with foodie elitists who can afford to shop at natural food stores and have kitchens that boast $5,000 ranges. It's easy to forget that those oft-repeated words do mean something.

They do.  I’m through with listening to people cast off having an interest in food as a frivolous pursuit.   Food shouldn’t be treated as a commodity, as something to quickly eat, before moving on to a more important part of life.  If you treat food like an off-hand choice, then your decision (or lack of one) contributes to the ills of industrial food: the unnecessary human and animal suffering, the incomprehensible taxpayer subsidies, the uncalled for environmental degradation, the ballooning healthcare costs.  Choosing what you eat does matter. Enormously.

I finally made it to the most anticipated section of The CAFO Reader:  the final one.   The section in which the authors offer up hope and intricately researched ideas for the future.  The one that should serve as a go-to resource for anyone, both individual and organization, seeking ideas on how to move forward in a healthier fashion.  This section seemed like the longest in an already long book.  Eight experts in their respective fields offered up thoughts, suggestions, and advice for moving away from industrial food production and into a healthier--in every sense of the word--food world.

The CAFO Reader explored the negatives and justifications of raising animals in a factory setting--the pathological mindset and the myriad of problems that result.  And while there is no single magic solution, each author offered his or her own thoughtsprocesses of where to go from here--how to escape the destruction of factory farming.

To recap (unless you want to go back and read all of the previous section’s posts!), here are the broad reasons why it’s time to put CAFO’s out to pasture:

Environment Degradation

Because CAFOs are regarded as farms, not industries, they have a free pass on certain air and water emissions.

A CAFO on 100 acres generates the same amount of sewage as a city of 100,000 people.

Our soil and water is ladened with fertilizers, pesticides, steroids, antibiotics, and animal waste.


Factory farming reinforces and promotes a meat heavy, fast food lifestyle that is inherently unhealthy.

Sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics can facilitate rapid emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of disease causing organisms.  These organisms can enter our environment in multiple ways:  waste disposal, crop fertilizer, groundwater, and even through the air if the factory has a poor ventilation system.

Loss of Community

When a CAFO becomes part of a town, an entire community can just disappear.  The low wages and hazardous conditions attract very few community members; more often than not the work is performed by new immigrants, most of whom are desperately seeking any kind of employment.  Because CAFOs are vertically integrated, these businesses don’t purchase from local suppliers and thus don’t infuse money into the local community

Biodiversity Loss

In the past, domestication was localized, with animals bred to fit regional conditions.  Now animals are domesticated to fit one condition: industrial production.

The loss of diversity means that we now eat from only a few genetic pools.  This leaves consumers with few options.  Animals that are bred for survival in industrial conditions are susceptible to disease.

Biodiversity loss also encompasses the shrinking of the number of farms that produce or grow our nation’s food, the kind of food that is grown or raised, the number of companies in charge of these industries, and the degradation of soil and wildlife due to intense industrial agriculture.

Genetic diversity is important for food security, environmental stewardship, scientific knowledge

Animal Welfare

Despite being regarded as farms, the Animal Welfare Act doesn’t apply to factory farmed 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.


An issue as complicated as industrial food production and the many ways it negatively impacts our world comes with no easy answer.  Certain countries in the European Union are successfully moving away from confined operations into sustainable systems still manage to feed the citizens of their countries.  Many experts cite Denmark, a leading hog producing nation, as an positive example of the ability of one country to successfully adapt to more humane treatment and fewer antibiotics used.

In 1998, Denmark placed strict regulations on antibiotic use on pigs.  The result?  A dramatic reduction in the presence of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.  In addition, by limiting antibiotic usage, the size of the operations had to be reduced.  Large confinement operations breed sickness.  And without the ability to dose the pigs with low levels of sub therapeutic antibiotics, the Danes had no choice but to oversee smaller operations.

The EU’s Farm Animal Welfare Council cites five principles that guide the treatment of animals:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
  2. Freedom from Discomfort
  3. Freedom from Pain/Injury/Disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior
  5. Freedom from Fear/Distress

One possible solution is to follow the European Union and Denmark’s model:  not to immediately phase out higher density animal farms, but to simply ban non-therapeutic antibiotic use--because one leads to the other.  An inability to use drugs automatically equals smaller operations.

Our environmental problems would benefit from a return to pasture based farming.  This requires a new generation of farmers, consumers from all walks of life, and infrastructure that can handle new financial, production, and processing systems.  There are significant landscapes not suitable to crop production, but rather to grazing animals.  The environment gains from grazing cows.  Cows help to spread grass seed, prevents trees and shrubs from taking over the grasses, and fertilize the fields.

The American food mindset should switch from an industrial one to an agrarian one.  An industrial mindset is all about standardization, risk management, and controlling nature.  An agrarian mindset manages resources, including nature, sustainably, and renews while reaping.

Months ago, I picked up The CAFO Reader with these goals in mind:

  • to accurately understand the realities of factory farming;
  • to learn more about the development of this model of food production;
  • to explore why so many people turn a blind eye towards how their meat is raised;
  • to see if there was hope for the future of animal welfare, our environment, and out nation’s health

While I continue to be challenged with trying to understand how we moved so far--and so quickly--towards a disastrous system, the CAFO Reader has certainly helped me to begin to grasp the complex challenges we face in trying to return to an agrarian system, and presented me with hope that the future can be brighter.  The environment can start to heal with the proper legislation enforced and the errors of the present need not  be repeated in the future.  We have a number of young people becoming farmers, willing to engage the public in modern ways.  The interest in local food is as strong as it’s ever been.