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Posts tagged: factory farming

Factory Farming Externalities

A negative externality is a cost “not transmitted through prices, incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost . . . . ”1 In the case of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), the party who did not agree to the costs includes the environment and the ecology. The damage caused by these operations (past, present, and future) will impact the environment and ecology for many years.

In the United States more than 99% of farmed animals come from factory farming.2 This, of course, means that less than 1% of farmed animals come from the idyllic pastoral scene with a quaint red barn and a tractor. The food industry doesn’t want you to know this, but those days are long gone.

What CAFOs are really good at doing, besides producing meat on the cheap, is producing waste. CAFOs produce about 100 times more waste than the amount of human waste processed in all US wastewater treatment plants.3 Requirements for treatment of human waste before entering waterways is stringent. This is not the case with livestock waste.

Livestock waste is more than just manure. It contains pathogens (many with antibiotic resistance) such as Helicobacter pylori, E.Coli O157:H7, salmonella, and listeria, heavy metals, hormones, and high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus. Contamination of waterways with livestock waste has numerous implication on human health and ecology.

Livestock waste is placed and stored in waste lagoons, which are deep troughs lined with clay. This type of storage does not adequately treat the waste; anaerobic lagoons are not effective at eliminating pathogens, biochemical oxygen demand, or heavy metals.4 Lagoons, an impressive euphemism, essentially serve as temporary storage ponds for animal waste. Not surprisingly, lagoons reach capacity and the waste has to go somewhere. Normally the waste is sprayed on nearby cropland. Depending on the soil, the waste can either infiltrate into the soil or it will runoff. This runoff contaminates waterways wreaking havoc on marine life and threatening human health. When the waste does infiltrate into the soil, it can cause phosphorus oversaturation and contaminate soils with heavy metals, damaging the cropland for years to come.

And that is when everything goes as planned. Lagoons fail. Lagoons overflow. Lagoons seep.


1 (20 June 2010)
2 (20 June 2010)
3 (20 June 2010)
4 Kirby, Dennis (2010) Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment

It’s a Small Planet

Today, more and more land in the world is devoted to growing grain to feed livestock, instead of growing food directly for people. Since meat is a poor converter of energy, dedicating land to growing food for livestock is an extremely inefficient use of land.

This has dire implications for the world’s poor and hungry. For example, rural communities in India who were self-sustainable on their own land, by growing a variety of crops for local consumption, are now raising monocrops of corn and soybeans, usually genetically-modified, to be sent to Europe for feeding livestock in animal feeding operations.

There are many examples of this: According to Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, “two thirds of the agriculturally productive land in Central America is devoted to livestock production, yet the poor majority cannot afford the meat, which is eaten by the well-to-do or exported.” In Costa Rica, beef production quadrupled between 1960 and 1980. Today much of the original tropical rain forest land has been sacrificed to beef production, however most of Costa Rican beef is exported to the United States.1 In Guatemala, the majority of children under the age of five are undernourished or otherwise malnourished, however most of Guatemala’s agricultural land is devoted to livestock feed and livestock production. Guatemala exports 40 million pounds of meat every year to the United States.2

Four percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, however 23% of the world’s beef is eaten in the United States.3 The Worldwatch Institute summarizes this well, “continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grains to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat eaters and the world’s poor.”


1 Robbins, John (2001). The Food Revolution, How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life And The World.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.

“Because I’ve Read Too Much”

In the past, when I’ve been asked why I don’t eat meat, my usual answer has been, “because I’ve read too much.” I’m not sure why I answered this way, perhaps it’s due to my aversion towards debate or preference for conflict avoidance. But now, I’d like to set the record straight. I opted out of meat eating because I do not approve of factory farming and the resultant negative effects on the health of people, the health and well being of animals, the environment, and the effects our practices and policies have on developing countries.

Photo Provided by Farm Sanctuary

Factory farming operations produce most of our meat in the United States. The purpose of these operations is to maximize profits by producing cheap and abundant meat. The industry applies the concepts of assembly lines and economies of scale to livestock and poultry. This may work with cars, but this does not work with living things.

The living conditions of animals in factory farms adversely affect both the health of the animals and the health of humans and the safety of our food supply. Animals are crammed into barns, which are more like warehouses, and do not have adequate room to move or exhibit natural behaviors. Chickens have less than half a square foot of space and turkeys less than three square feet. Conditions for pigs are equally cramped and harsh. Many of these animals spend their entire stressful lives indoors, never seeing sunlight.

The dense conditions of factory farming lead to the proliferation of infections such as E. coli O157:H7, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria and others. In attempt to curb infections, animals are given regular doses of antibiotics. Routinely administered antibiotics are a short-sighted solution that addresses the symptoms instead of the problem. The need for routine antibiotics is a direct result of the living conditions of the animals. The industry also uses antibiotics to speed growth of livestock and poultry. This abuse of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance (superbugs such as MRSA), which is a serious concern in the medical community.

The feed given to these animals, especially cattle, is not natural. Cattle feed at concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs or “feedlots”) consists largely of corn. Corn is desirable by the industry because it is cheap, cheaper than it costs to produce thanks to government subsidies, and it fattens cattle quickly. However, cattle, which are ruminants, are designed by nature to consume grass, not grains. Grain consumption leads to sickness and pain in cattle and cultivates a high acid environment in the intestines of cows, perfect for E.coli O157:H7, the familiar deadly intestinal bacteria often heard about in the news. Grain fed cattle is not only unhealthy for the cattle, but it is also unhealthy for humans. Compared to 100% grass-fed cattle, beef from industry cattle have much higher amounts of total fat and saturated fat and lower amounts of vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.1

If this isn’t bad enough, cattle feed is commonly supplemented with chicken manure, expired pet food, and restaurant leftovers.2,3 Apparently the industry experts have not figured out that cattle are herbivores, not cannibalistic carnivorous garbage disposers. Although the practice of feeding cattle to cattle was banned by the FDA in 1997 to prevent spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow” disease), these supplemental feeds circumvent these safeguards. Due to the way chicken manure is collected, it likely is mixed with chicken feed (the FDA allows cattle remnants in chicken feed – also bizarre), and pet food and restaurant leftovers likely contain cattle remnants. These remnants could contain prions, the infectious agent of BSE, which are mutant proteins that cannot be destroyed by heat, irradiation, sterilization or chemical disinfectants.4

Additionally, many industry cattle are injected with growth hormones. It is suspected that hormone residues in meat may be harmful to humans, by disrupting human hormone balance – causing developmental and reproductive problems and possibly leading to the development of certain cancers.5

The next post will discuss the humanitarian implications of excessive meat consumption and how concentrated meat production has affected people living in developing countries.



Opting Out

After reading Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, I quickly opted out. At that time, I lived in a small community where the only place to shop for food was Wal-Mart and the commissary; finding beef from a known reputable source wasn’t feasible for me. I stopped eating ground beef first (the thought of hundreds of cows being represented in one burger was too much for me to handle), and then steak. My last steak was at an Outback Steakhouse in Alexandria, Louisiana, in December 2002. All I could think about while I ate it was CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), slaughterhouses, and mad cow disease; at that point, I knew it was my last steak.

Interestingly, the film Food, Inc. opens with Eric Schlosser ordering a hamburger and fries, and then biting into said hamburger. The scene was almost too much for me to bear. Here is Eric Schlosser, the man whose investigation and whose words changed my life, eating a hamburger in front of me. Hmm. He said a hamburger and fries, to this day, was his favorite meal.

Three food revolutionaries who I completely respect and admire, Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Joel Salatin, have all questioned, in their writing or speeches, the necessity or validity of a vegetarian diet. My response to these sometimes hostile statements is that I didn’t stop eating meat because I think it’s immoral to kill or eat animals (although, Ari Solomon provides a different view or two), but instead I view it as voting three times a day. I’m voting against products from an unsafe, ecologically devastating, and unethical system. By not eating meat, I am, in a very small way, telling the ConAgras, Cargills, Tysons, and Smithfields to shove it. Everyday. I don’t think Pollan, Kingsolver, or Salatin can argue with that!

Over the years, I’ve been told that eating meat is natural. Reading between the lines, I suppose the statement being communicated is that being a vegetarian is unnatural. In the next few posts in this series I will discuss what I think is actually unnatural: the predominant method of meat production in the United States today.


This Omnivore’s Dilemma

This past weekend, Dave and I received his first delivery from Thundering Hooves, a family farm in Walla Walla, Washington, that produces pasture-raised and, perhaps more importantly, pasture-finished and sustainably produced meats, including beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, and pork.  In light of this, I thought it would be a good time to analyze and evaluate one of my Earth Day 2010 goals.  Goal #3 was to “find a pasture-raised, pasture-finished source of meat for my boyfriend.”

Perhaps you are wondering why I said “for my boyfriend.”   Why not for me?

Well, the reason is, after reading Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser in 2002, my meat-eating days came to a screeching halt.  Though I’ve rarely, if ever, used the term “vegetarian” to describe myself, others do.  I eat turkey once a year, at Thanksgiving, and fish occasionally. (Regarding fish: As I have learned more about the overfishing of the oceans, the horrors of fish farming operations, and the pollutants in the earth’s waters – the most scary being PCBs, mercury, and dioxins – I’ve begun questioning this choice as well and have become increasingly selective regarding the fish I eat.)  I digress.

Eric Schlosser’s investigative journalism in Fast Food Nation takes readers on an enlightening journey describing the development of fast food and how fast food has shaped our industrial food system. Among the topics he discusses are McDonald’s and other fast food chains, soft drinks, factory farming, marketing, obesity, potato production and French fries, and even a fascinating insight into flavoring companies. However, the most impactful part of the book for me was meat production. The factory farming of animals, which I will define in the next post in this series, disgusted me.


Want Organic Milk at Starbucks? Order Soy.

One of my vices is coffee. For years my drink at Starbucks has been a tall, non-fat, no whip mocha.   However, one day I realized my behavior was inconsistent.  I drink organic milk at home, but Starbucks does not stock organic milk for their lattes (however, their milk is rBGH free.) One day I asked if they had organic soymilk . . . and low and behold they do. In fact, if you order soymilk, you will get organic soy.  Good to know.

I much prefer organic soymilk (as opposed to plain ol’ soymilk) for the following reasons: Not only are pesticides not used to grow organic soybeans, but organic, by definition, means the product is free of genetically modified organisms.  Terribly, approximately 89% of the soybean crop in the United States is Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready variety.  Monsanto RoundUp Ready soybeans have bacterial DNA inserted into the DNA of the soybean.  This makes the soybean resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide, RoundUp.  Therefore, the herbicide can be dumped all over the land, killing every plant in its path, except for the soybean.

I choose organic milk for similar reasons.  Organic dairy cattle are not fed routine antibiotics or artificial hormones.  Organic milk also means the cows feed on organic pasture or organic feed.  This, in turn, means the land that supports the cow (grows her food) must be organic too.  This adds demand for clean, organic (pesticide-free and chemical fertilizer-free) agricultural land.  Very good!  Organic dairy cattle must also have access to open air.  I’m not sure what the definition of “open air” is, but I’m hoping organic dairy cattle have a bit better life than they would have as factory cattle . . . .


Two Green Revolutions

The first “Green Revolution,” which began around the end of World War II, resulted in farmers applying pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc) and fertilizers to grow our food.  The adoption of monoculture farming allows for greater yields, but also makes crops more susceptible to pests and disease and robs soils of its nutrients, thus creating the demand for artificial chemicals to combat these problems.  We are so accustomed to industrial agriculture and so convinced that it is necessary to feed the world that most of us haven’t stopped to think about the obvious implications of this statement.  We are using toxins and pollutants to grow the food intended to nourish us. 

This modern system of industrial agriculture has become an environmental disaster; not only does this system pose serious risks to human health, but it is also polluting our land, rivers, aquifers, oceans, lakes, snow, rain, and air with dangerous toxins and pollutants (both chemical and, since 1994, genetic) whose long term cumulative effect on human health, the environment and ecosystems were not studied adaquately before their use.

In addition, to feed our insatiable appetite for meat (nearly 200 pounds a year per person in the United States), industrial agriculture adopted a factory approach to raising livestock.  This method of animal farming is, at best, abusive and sinister. Animals are crowded and confined and allowed no room for movement and natural behaviors, mothers and their newborns are separated, and animals are routinely mutilated.  For example, pig tails are cut and removed and chickens and turkeys are debeaked.  These crowded conditions require the routine use of antibiotics to prevent the spread of diseases.  Antibiotics are also administered to encourage faster growth.  These abuses of pharmaceuticals have led to “superbugs”; bacteria resistant to antibiotics.  The enormous quantities of animal waste created by such large concentrations of animals are not properly handled. The contamination of water, land and air by these abundant untreated waste products has devastating effects on the environment, the ecosystem, and nearby communities.

These issues go beyond the United States.  As our culture, values, and eating habits have invaded other countries, the environmental destruction has become even more widespread.  Everyday more and more rain forest is destroyed to provide more pasture for livestock.  Yet, one of the promises of industrial agriculture, solving world hunger, continues to evade us. 

There is nothing natural, acceptable, or necessary about modern industrial agriculture created during the first Green Revolution. Now, the same industry is pushing for the Second Green Revolution. The belief is that increased crop selection, genetic engineering, will increase crop production and that this is necessary to feed a growing population. This thought process is flawed. As stewards of the planet, we have moral responsibility to care for the fragile ecosystems that we can so easily destroy and to protect and conserve our planet and its resources for future generations.  

Fortunately, I think we can each make a difference through our food choices.  One of the simplest ways to do this is to buy certified organic produce, dairy, and meat. Ask your grocer to stock organic products. Reduce your consumption of meat and dairy. This isn’t a perfect solution, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. We do not need to accept either Green Revolution. Let’s fight back.


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