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3 Lies Big Food Wants You to Believe and the Truth Behind Factory-'Farmed' Meat

Most of the meat Americans consume is from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which are horrific for animals and terrible for our health and our communities.

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All these associated health problems drive up the costs of social services and insurance premiums. They reduce productivity and increase employee sick days. They can also result in premature deaths, with incalculable costs for families and communities.

Farm Communities

The retail prices of cheap animal food products also fail to reflect industrial agriculture's ongoing dislocation of farm families and the steady shuttering of businesses in rural communities. According to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the average industrial hog factory puts ten family farmers out of business, replacing high quality agricultural jobs with three to four hourly wage workers in relatively low-paying and potentially dangerous jobs. When small farmers fall on hard times, many local employers close their doors and, at worst, entire communities, towns, and regional food production and distribution webs disappear from the landscape.

Government Subsidies

Perverse government subsidies--both in the United States and Europe--provide billions of tax dollars to support industrial animal agriculture. Tufts University researchers estimate that in the United States alone, between 1997 and 2005 the industrial animal sector saved over $35 billion as a result of federal farm subsidies that lowered the price of the feed they purchased.

Similar savings were not available to many small and midsize farmers who were growing their own feed and raising livestock in diversified pasture-based systems. Throughout the 2002 U.S. farm bill, individual CAFO investors were also eligible to receive up to $450,000 for a five-year EQIP contract from the U.S. government to deal with animal wastes--allowing large operations with many investors to rake in a much greater sum. European Union agricultural subsidies also bolster industrial animal producers, providing $2.25 per dairy cow per day--25 cents more than what half the world's human population survives on.

A Less Costly Alternative

By contrast, many sustainable livestock operations address potential negative health and environmental impacts through their production methods. They produce less waste and forgo dangerous chemicals and other additives. Grass-pastured meat and dairy products have been shown to be high in omega-3 and other fatty acids that have cancer-fighting properties. Smaller farms also receive fewer and smaller federal subsidies. While sustainably produced foods may cost a bit more, many of their potential beneficial environmental and social impacts are already included in the price.

Lie #2: Industrial Food Is Efficient

Industrial food animal producers often proclaim that "bigger is better," ridiculing the "inefficiency" of small- or medium-size farms using low-impact technologies. CAFO operations, however, currently rely on heavily subsidized agriculture to produce feed, large infusions of capital to dominate markets, and lax enforcement of regulations to deal with waste disposal. Perverse incentives and market controls leverage an unfair competitive advantage over smaller producers and cloud a more holistic view of efficiency.

Factory farms and CAFOs appear efficient only if we focus on the quantity of meat, milk, or eggs produced from each animal over a given period of time. But high productivity or domination of market share should not be confused with efficiency. When we measure the total cost per unit of production, or even the net profit per animal, a more sobering picture emerges. Confinement operations come with a heavy toll of external costs--inefficiencies that extend beyond the CAFO or feedlot. These hidden costs include subsidized grain discounts, unhealthy market control, depleted aquifers, polluted air and waterways, and concentrated surpluses of toxic feces and urine. The massive global acreage of monocrops that produce the corn, soybeans, and hay to feed livestock in confinement could arguably be more efficiently managed as smaller, diversified farms and pasture operations, along with protected wildlands.

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