CAFOS: Their Environmental Impact

Andrew Miller

Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, are the next step in the evolution of small family farms, which need to adopt new farming paradigms in order to feed greater and greater numbers of people.


cafoBut, as one scientist noted, it isn’t necessary to resort to physical battery (of animals), hazardous confinement, or the misuse of antibiotics to achieve this transformation. In fact, medium-sized CAFOs not only provide better wages for workers, and better conditions for animals, but manage to anchor themselves in the community with the sort of financial and political synergy which the enormous mega-meat farms can only dream of.


On the other hand, the larger the operation, the more likely it is to survive even severe deficits like recession, a shortage of feed (from droughts or flooding), and/or outbreaks of persistent diseases. This is because big operations – feeding and fattening 3,400 sows (as compared to 250 for a family-sized operation) – have better access to more affordable credit and also fit the profile for federal subsidiesmuch more readily than smaller operations.


That, too, is beginning to change, according to the Minneapolis Fed (Federal ReserveBank), as insular and highly independent small producers join co-ops. There, it is hoped, smaller units will achieve cheaper feed costs and improved lending terms, putting them on more equal terms with the 3,400 head operations.  


As the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production study notes, swine producers are literally standing in line to get financial help for two separate issues: the economic downturn, or recession (2007-2009) and the outbreak of swine flu.


The study, performed by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health at the behest of the Pew Commission (part of the Pew Charitable Trusts), was organized to provide a comprehensive, fact-based, fully centric examination of the American farm animal industry. The Pew group is third on the roster – after the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution and the equally liberal Center for American Progress – when it comes to influential, prestigious think tanks. 

The major concern about CAFOs – and the negative message that seems to percolate down through the ranks of both Democrats and Republicans – is the random, excessive and sometimes absolutely unnecessary use of antibiotics in large feeding operations.


cafosThe antibiotics are the primary reason for increasing thresholds of antibiotic resistance in both animals and humans. The difference is, no one holds a funeral for a pig – unless it is a pet pig.


The same is true of chickens, turkeys, cattle, sheep and the like, but pigs have inherited a largely erroneous reputation as needing more antibiotics simply to survive the conditions present in most CAFOs.


In fact, pigs are only slightly more prone to disease than other species, but when they do get sick – especially in crowded conditions conducive to spreading illnesses – it is often easier to kill the entire passel than try to cure them.


Our focus, though, is not the pigs but the kinds of health problems they cause when raised proximally with humans. Then, highly destructive and costly illnesses like MRSAs (Methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus) set the stage for potential – and astonishingly costly – outbreaks among entire communities. Very often, these communities will find they have no recourse to the stinks, squalor and danger of open mature ponds except to hire an environmental lawyer, who will file a Toxic Tortlawsuit in court in hopes of forcing change or even driving the CAFO out of the community.


The Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS has framed the dilemma as a case of misguided public policy. That is, producing enough pork to feed the nation doesn’t require endless regimens of antibiotics. Economically efficient and technologically refined practices which reduce the impact of manure and the amount of antibiotics – and provide pigs with the opportunity to root, as is their nature – are fully as productive.


Unfortunately, these “greener” animal husbandry choices do not get subsidized at the same level as a typical CAFO, which relies on government for subsidies to help it feed animals and remediate the amount and disposal of waste products. In smaller operations – and let’s call them human-sized operations, because that is a distinction that needs to be made to understand why enormous CAFOs seem so unmanageable, while herds of pigs between 50 and 250 head fit comfortably in the regimen of today’s farm.


As with banks, and every other operation expected to produce a profit, some thingscafosare simply too large not to fail. Three thousand swine that never get to walk in a field or splash in a puddle, living packed together in barred cages so narrow these highly intelligent animals can scarcely turn around, is a recipe for sickness. It’s only to be expected that this disease element will find its way into human DNA (or some portion of DNA identical in both species). This is the first step toward a pandemic. As it now stands, many first generation antibiotics are no longer effective.


So far the United States has been spared swine flu, bird flu, and a number of other endemic illnesses arising from crowded living conditions among both animals and humans. But it isn’t time to gloat. As increasing dosages of antibiotics find their way into animal feeding operations, and as greater and greater numbers of workers find themselves feeding, watering, treating and quarantining larger numbers of animals, sometimes working with the haste and inattention that reduced manpower assures, it’s only a matter of time before Nature gives up trying to protect us and a truly nasty disease is released among the residents of Western nations.  


About the Author

Andrew Miller is a passionate member of the End Ecocide movement, an avid blogger, environmental law student and co-founder of the tech startup Scan & Ban (; a free mobile app developed to empower the public to find out what toxins are in their food and pass legislature to ban those dangerous ingredients.


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  • Posted on April 27, 2013. Listed in:

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