Regarding farming, the average American is probably familiar with issues related to pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, fair-trade, or organic certification. However whenever I bring up CAFOs, most people have no idea what I’m talking about, which is disconcerting because CAFOs are some of the nastiest things on Earth. If you need persuading take a look at the picture below:
That ^ ^ is a “manure lagoon”, literally a basin of animal excrement that is a direct by-product of CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. The majority of the meat you eat in America (unless it is free-range/organic/local) comes from Big Agriculture – corporations who raise their animals in factory-like conditions, cramming tens of thousands of animals in tiny pens where they never see the light of day, benefit from free movement and exercise, or breathe fresh air. These are concentration camps for animals, where the goal of the corporation is to achieve industrial levels of efficiency with animals as their production slaves. This doesn’t just pose a moral issue regarding the treatment of animals; CAFOs have a direct and serious impact on YOUR health and the health of the environment.
When animals receive little to no exercise, breathe the stench of the refuse of thousands of other animals nearby, and are fed artificial food (or food that is cheap but not a part of their natural diet, i.e. corn), they grow less and experience more health problems, like E. Coli growing in the stomachs of cows. In order to counteract this, animals are pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, which affects your body as you eat their meat or drink their milk. Increased levels of ingested antibiotics and growth hormones in the human body have lowered the age at which children begin puberty (with many girls receiving their first period at the age of 7), augmented the body’s storage of fat, and have lessened people’s ability to be treated effectively by antibiotics in cases of illness. Got a bad case of acne? Feeling bloated? Missing periods? That’s probably the hormones in your milk/meat.*
Aside from your own body, CAFOs have a serious impact on the world around you. Manure lagoons, which are a slurry of solid sludge and liquid excrement, are known to emit a volatile mix of greenhouse gases. These gases include ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane (which is 25% more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2), and carbon dioxide. With about 450,000 CAFOs in the United States and with the way wind likes to travel, the air you breathe is in fact directly affected by CAFOs that may be thousands of miles away from you (as an example of this, California has a significant amount of pollution in its air generated by CHINA!! which is 6,687 miles away across an ocean).
Additionally, although manure lagoons are lined with clay to prevent the antibiotics, estrogens, bacteria, pesticides, heavy metals, and protozoa in them from contaminating local water, they are prone to overflow either due to cracks in their lining or just increased rainfall/strong wind. Contaminating water and soil with these substances then affects ecosystem populations of a variety of animals (as an example, algae will overpopulate bodies of water and suffocate other aquatic animals/fish).
Why do CAFOs exist? Partly it’s your fault. It’s also mine. With Americans increasingly not knowing from what conditions their food comes from and just accepting the miracle that are supermarket shelves, we are eating an abundance of protein. People eat large amounts of meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. People gladly go for that second or third helping of hamburger at family BBQs. People choose not just sausage, but also bacon, ham, and a turkey patty at continental breakfast buffets. Of course, no industry will say “no” to increased demand. You want more meat? The industry will find a way to make it happen. And the only way to satisfy the estimated 324,227,000** of us that all want meat every day for every meal*** is a CAFO. Making a change doesn’t start with the industry (governments have tried to moderate the inhumane treatment of animals in CAFOs, with only minimal effect), it starts with YOU. By making a decision to limit your meat intake to one meal per day, for example, or maybe once every two days, you can make a serious dent in demand. If there’s no need for hellish amounts of meat, there’s no need for CAFOs. Believe me, Americans actually eat more protein than necessary in a regular diet (eating too much protein can actually suck calcium out of your bones). You don’t need it.
So now that you know the personal health, environmental, and economical impacts of CAFOs, let’s briefly review the conditions in which these animals live, partnered with images.
Chickens live in “broilers”, where they are crammed into a small tent with 20,000 to 30,000 other birds and have less than a square foot of living space. They live for approximately 7 weeks (despite the fact that healthy chickens can live 8-10 years!), the entire time sitting on their own waste, called “cake” by CAFO industrialists.
Cow CAFOS are just about the worst. These giant animals meant by nature to be pasture roaming, healthy creatures are crammed in pens and fed a diet of just about whatever can fill their stomachs with no regard to nutritional content. This includes hydrolyzed poultry feathers, by-products of the other animals killed on the farm, inter-species waste, and cement dust. Even on farms where the diet is less sickening and cows are fed corn, a very cheap alternative to grass, cows must be pumped with antibiotics to negate the E. Coli in their stomachs. Fed on grass, cows develop no E. Coli in their digestive tracts.
Pigs live in no better conditions, despite them being smarter than dogs. 1,200 to 2,500 pigs can be confined in one space, all in cages
Egg laying hens suffer no less than those raised for their meat. They are kept in the most confining cages, with their beaks seared off so they cannot maim their neighbor. They live for a year before they are killed.
As you can see, CAFOs are beyond unnatural: they’re beasts that shouldn’t exist and have far-reaching impact. If anything, if you don’t feel recycling makes an impact, if you don’t feel waste reduction is possible in your life (which is not true FYI), just eat less meat. With the amount we eat every day, you as an individual influencing your family and your friends can actually make a giant impact.
*Soy milk, although not a product of industrial farms, also has high amounts of hormones and has been attributed to similar issues.
**Estimate by the US Census Bureau
***Yes, I know I’m not taking into account vegans and vegetarians, but that’s just because they are a very small minority in this country. The difference is minuscule and the point still stands.
Author: Jackie Ibragimov