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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality (20 June 2010)
2 http://www.farmforward.com/farming-forward/factory-farming (20 June 2010)
3 http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/waste/ (20 June 2010)
4 Kirby, Dennis (2010) Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment