Mar 01 2011

Part 2: Myths of the CAFO

“Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm.  Which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure nor depended on large quantities of commercial fertilizer.” –Wendell Berry

Part Two of The CAFO Reader moves from the higher level pathological explanations behind the creation and justification of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to eight commonly held statements about a CAFO’s efficiency, efficacy, and inevitably.  This section is very cut and dry:  editor Daniel Imhoff leaves no space for ambiguity or half-truths.  Each myth is presented and subsequently disproven with facts and examples.

I’ve frequently read and heard some of these ‘myths’.  I’ve never heard others, such as ‘CAFOs are good for rural communities’. My unawareness is perhaps due to where I live and with whom I interact.  If I lived in a downtrodden Midwestern town that was desperately seeking industry, I imagine I’d have heard this statement before.

Imhoff takes the eight myths and presents reasons why they are simply not true.  There’s a great deal of overlap between the myths and the data presented.  To combined the eight myths together, I’ve combined them into a single sentence which unifies their sentiment:

Industrial food can feed the world through its cheap, efficient, and healthy food, which is good for both rural communities and the environment.

This (slightly run on) sentence couldn’t be further from the truth.  Here’s why:

A plethora of articles and books explain why industrial food is as cheap as it is.  Unfortunately, the reason for its cheapness is neither to encourage food equality among all citizens nor so that everyone can eat a nutritious meal at a small cost.  There is no altruistic reason that McDonald's and Wendy’s are so cheap.  I see no point in rewriting what others have so eloquently said, so here’s something to keep in mind that the next time you’re looking at food prices and are confused about the very obvious differences.  The cheap food is not cheap. Not even close.  It’s a trade off. Industrialized food is as cheap as it is because of ‘externalities’ that citizens pay for with taxes, medical expenses, environmental costs, and insurance premiums.

Billions of tax dollars support industrial agriculture.  These are savings not available to small and midsized farmers growing their own feed.  Industrial agriculture is given an unfair advantage in the market, due to subsidies, market access, and lax enforcement of regulations. Smaller non-industrialized farms struggle daily, as their rural processing and distribution networks have been gutted.

CAFOs are horrifyingly horrible (how’s that for an alliteration?) for our country’s environment and the global environment. Our soil and water is ladened with fertilizers, pesticides, steroids, antibiotics, and animal waste.   Each year we spray billions of pounds of chemical fertilizers and millions of pesticides onto our feed crops. The direct effect of this nutrient run off is over 400 dead zones in the world, including an 8,000 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  According to the Pew Commission, over 1 million Americans take their drinking water from groundwater that contains nitrogen pollutants.  Beyond the chemical pollution, the naturally beneficial ecosystems of wetlands, grasslands, and forests have all been converted to grow feed.

This is to say nothing about the current system for handling animal waste.  As an example, the 600 million chickens grown on the Delmarva Peninsula (bordering the Chesapeake Bay) generate as much nitrogen as a city of 500,000 people.  Human waste is treated; animal waste is not. Animal waste is either stored in vast lagoons or used to spray fields, meaning that toxins, bacteria, and metals contaminate our groundwater, our crops, our aquatic systems, and our atmosphere (in the form of dangerous hydrogen sulfide).

And the worst part?  The essential clean up isn’t being done.

Beyond the obvious detriment to health from the pollution I just mentioned, factory farming reinforces and promotes a meat heavy, fast food lifestyle that is inherently unhealthy.  Two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.  Rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are at an all time high.  E Coli and salmonella are an ever-present risk.  These concerns don’t even touch on worker health and the perils, both physical and psychological, factory farm workers face on a daily basis.

Along with the issue of physical health, what about the health of farm communities?  The average industrial hog factory puts 10 family farmers out of business.  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.  When a CAFO arrives in a community, that community’s infrastructure becomes harder to maintain; toxic air and water emissions increase; property values decline and tax revenues plummet.

As the nitrogen-singed cherry on top, the incredible negative effects on the environment, health, small farms and communities don’t stem from an efficient system.  The CAFO Reader presents this disheartening number:  there are 800 million hungry versus 1 billion overweight in the world.  80% of the world’s hungry live in countries with grain surpluses.  These surpluses are fed to animals for consumption by the world’s affluent.

Other signs of inefficiency include:

•    Factory farm animals produce three times as much waste as humans.  This waste can’t be used as fertilizer.

•    Much of our crop producing capacity is being diverted to growing feed

•    This western model of producing food widens the hunger gap.  Land is diverted and staple crops become monocultures.

In Part Three, the CAFO reader goes “Inside the CAFO”.  I’m bracing myself for this section.  Check back for my synopsis and thoughts soon.