The Curse of Factory Farms

Reprinted from The New York Times, August 30, 2002


Factory farms have become the dominant method of raising meat in America. Agribusiness loves the apparent efficiency that comes with raising thousands of animals in a single large building where they are permanently confined in stalls or pens. Most of the human labor can be automated. It takes less land, because the animals live cheek by jowl their entire lives. And it allows the concentration of enormous stocks of animals in the hands of a few corporations whose goal is usually complete vertical integration - the control of production from birth through butchering and packaging.

These plants, called confined animal feeding operations, or CAFO's, now exist in 44 states. The question is how to minimize their harmful environmental effects and prevent them from putting a final squeeze on smaller farmers, especially those who raise animals in more traditional, grass-based ways.

Factory farms have taken root mainly where zoning laws were lax or nonexistent, or in states where citizens were prevented from filing suits against agricultural operations. The inevitable byproduct of huge concentrations of animals is huge concentrations of manure, which is stored in open lagoons and eventually sprayed on farmland, though there is usually far more manure than local fields can absorb. In such quantities, manure becomes a toxic substance. Spills are always a risk, as is groundwater contamination. The bigger danger is airborne contamination of water from ammonia, which rises from the lagoons and falls into low-lying rivers and estuaries.

A new report from the Sierra Club, titled "The Rapsheet on Animal Factories," draws a vivid portrait of the environmental violations caused by factory farms, many of which are owned by some of America's largest agricultural corporations, including ConAgra , Tyson Foods , Cargill and Smithfield Farms. What brought these factory farms to the Sierra Club's attention was a pattern of violations that resulted in criminal charges and fines, most often caused by toxic spills.

The federal government should at minimum serve as a neutral umpire in the fight between big and small farmers. In the case of factory farms it should try to control their threat to the environment through broader, more vigorous application of the Clean Water Act, typically invoked only in the most egregious cases. And it should never use taxpayer money to encourage a method of farming that works against the public's desire for open space, biodiversity and clean, non-malodorous air.

Unfortunately, the government has been putting its weight behind big business. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued basically toothless rules under which the states give permits to any factory farm that comes up with a plan for handling manure, mainly by building larger lagoons to hold it. The new farm bill that President Bush signed in May adds further insult by paying farmers up to $450,000 apiece to help them comply with regulations that don't mean much to begin with.

The regressive farm bill also continues the government's policy of throwing its weight behind the already hefty industrial farms and helping to drive smaller farmers out of business. In Iowa, for instance, the number of hog farms has dropped from 64,500 in 1980 to 10,500 in 2000, though the number of hogs, about 15 million, remains the same. The public's money, in this fight, is going in the opposite direction of the public interest.

The concentration typical of factory farms extends to the genetic level as well. The poultry and pork industries depend on just a handful of different types of turkeys, chickens and pigs, and the beef industry is headed in that direction too. There has been a precarious narrowing of the genetic resources that supply most of America's meat.

The danger is that of an inverted pyramid, an enormous number of animals all resting on the same narrow genetic base, exposing them to the risk of catastrophic disease and requiring an inappropriate use of antibiotics to ensure their health. Genetic diversity is no less important in domesticated animals, like hogs and chickens, than it is in wild animals. The best way to guarantee it is to guarantee a diversity of farmers.