3 Lies Big Food Wants You to Believe and the Truth Behind Factory-'Farmed' Meat
CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, edited by Daniel Imhoff and published by Watershed Media and the Foundation for Deep Ecology, is a must-read and must-see book about the horrors of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. With over 400 photos and 30 essays, the book includes contributions from Wendell Berry, Wenonah Hauter, Fred Kirschenmann, Anna Lappé, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. CAFO pulls back the curtain on what goes on inside so-called "factory farms" and what the effects of industrial meat production are on the animals, our environment, our communities, our agricultural system and our health. Below is a brief excerpt from the book. You can learn more about CAFO and what to do to end industrial meat production at the book's Web site.
Lie #1: Industrial Food Is Cheap
The retail prices of industrial meat, dairy, and egg products omit immense impacts on human health, the environment, and other shared public assets. These costs, known among economists as "externalities," include massive waste emissions with the potential to heat up the atmosphere, foul fisheries, pollute drinking water, spread disease, contaminate soils, and damage recreational areas. Citizens ultimately foot the bill with hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, medical expenses, insurance premiums, declining property values, and mounting cleanup costs.
Walk into any fast-food chain and you're likely to find a "value" meal: chicken nuggets or a cheeseburger and fries for a price almost too good to be true. For families struggling to make ends meet, a cheap meal may seem too tough to pass up. Indeed, animal factory farm promoters often point to America's bargain fast-food prices as proof that the system is working. The CAFO system, they argue, supplies affordable food to the masses. But this myth of cheap meat, dairy, and egg products revolves around mounting externalized social and ecological costs that never appear on restaurant receipts or grocery bills.
Staggering Environmental Burdens
Environmental damages alone should put to rest any illusions that food produced in industrial animal factories is cheap. Soil and water have been poisoned through decades of applying synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow billions of tons of livestock feed. Water bodies have been contaminated with animal wastes. The atmosphere is filled with potent greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The mitigation costs for these problems are enormous. But what is worse, this essential cleanup work of contaminated resources is, for the most part, not being done.
To cite just one example, agricultural runoff--particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from poultry and hog farms--is a major source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, a once-vital East Coast fishery, now with numerous species on the verge of collapse. One study estimated the price tag for restoring the bay at $19 billion, of which $11 billion would go toward "nutrient reduction." There are over 400 such dead zones throughout the world.
Industrial animal production brings profound health risks and costs to farmers, workers, and consumers. CAFO workers suffer from emissions associated with industrial farming, as do neighboring communities. Medical researchers have linked the country's intensive meat consumption to such serious human health maladies as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Annual costs for just these diseases in the United States alone exceed $33 billion. Antibiotic-resistant organisms ("superbugs") created by overuse of antibiotics in industrial meat and dairy production can increase human vulnerability to infection. One widely cited U.S. study estimated the total annual costs of antibiotic resistance at $30 billion. Estimated U.S. annual costs associated with E. coli O157:H7, a bacteria derived primarily from animal manure, reach $405 million: $370 million for deaths, $30 million for medical care, and $5 million for lost productivity.
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.
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.
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.
Reverse Protein Factories
Animal factory farms achieve their efficiencies by substituting corn and soybeans and even wild fish for pasture grazing. To gain a pound of body weight, a broiler chicken must eat an average of 2.3 pounds of feed. Hogs convert 5.9 pounds of feed into a pound of pork. Cattle require 13 pounds of feed per pound of beef, though some estimates range much higher. To supplement that feed, one-third of the world's ocean fish catch is ground up and added to rations for hogs, broiler chickens, and farmed fish. The 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report Livestock's Long Shadow summed it up this way: "In simple numeric terms, livestock actually detract more from total food supply than they provide. . . . In fact, livestock consume 77 million tons of protein contained in feedstuff that could potentially be used for human nutrition, whereas 58 million tons of protein are contained in food products that livestock supply."
The efficiency of slaughterhouse practices should also be called into question, as their incessant increases in speed, drive for profit, and huge scale have resulted in contamination and massive meat recalls. In the United States, between spring 2007 and spring 2009 alone, there were 25 recalls due to the virulent E. coli O157:H7 pathogen involving 44 million pounds of beef. When all costs of research, prevention, and market losses are added up, over the last decade E. coli contamination has cost the beef industry an estimated $1.9 billion.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that factory animal farms generate more than 500 million tons of waste per year--more than three times the amount produced by the country's human population.
On a small, diversified farm, much of this manure could be efficiently used for fertilizer. Instead, most CAFOs store waste in massive lagoons or dry waste piles with the potential to give off toxic fumes, leak, or overflow. Ground and surface water can be contaminated with bacteria and antibiotics; pesticides and hormones containing endocrine disruptors; or dangerously high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients. Inconsistent enforcement of regulations has allowed CAFO waste disposal problems to escalate in many areas.
Meanwhile, the environmental and health impacts of this pollution are rarely calculated as part of the narrow range of parameters that CAFO operators use to define efficiency.
Not only do CAFOs burden citizens with environmental and health costs, they also gorge themselves at the proverbial public trough. Thanks to U.S. government subsidies, between 1997 and 2005, factory farms saved an estimated $3.9 billion per year because they were able to purchase corn and soybeans at prices below what it cost to grow the crops.
Without these feed discounts, amounting to a 5 to 15 percent reduction in operating costs, it is unlikely that many of these industrial factory farms could remain profitable. By contrast, many small farms that produce much of their own forage receive no government money. Yet they are expected somehow to match the efficiency claims of the large, subsidized megafactory farms. On this uneven playing field, CAFOs may falsely appear to "outcompete" their smaller, diversified counterparts.
Another issue clouding any meaningful discussions of efficiency is the lack of access to markets among many independent producers. Because CAFOs have direct relationships with meat packers (and are sometimes owned by them, or "vertically integrated"), they have preferred access to the decreasing number of slaughterhouses and distribution channels to process and market products. Many midsize or smaller independent producers have no such access and as a result must get big, develop separate distribution channels, or simply disappear.
Lie #3: Industrial Food Is Healthy
Industrial animal food production heightens the risk of the spread of food-borne illnesses that afflict millions of Americans each year. Rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity--often related to excessive meat and dairy consumption--are at an all-time high. Respiratory diseases and outbreaks of illnesses are increasingly common among CAFO and slaughterhouse workers and spill over into neighboring communities and the public at large.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that contaminated meat- and poultry-related infections make up to 3 million people sick each year, killing at least 1,000--figures that are probably underreported.
Crammed into tight confinement areas in massive numbers, factory farm animals often become caked with their own feces. Animal waste is the primary source of infectious bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, which affect human populations through contaminated food and water. Grain-intensive diets can also increase the bacterial and viral loads in confined animal wastes. As a result, CAFOs can become breeding grounds for diseases and pathogens.
Americans consume more meat and poultry per capita today than ever before, part of a diet that is high in calories and rich in saturated fats. According to the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University, meat and dairy foods contribute all of the cholesterol and are the primary source of saturated fat in the typical American diet. Approximately two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, increasing their chances of developing breast, colon, pancreas, kidney, and other cancers. Obesity and high blood cholesterol levels are among the leading risk factors for heart disease. Both of these conditions are associated with heavy meat consumption. More directly, researchers have linked diets that include significant amounts of animal fat to an increased incidence of cardiovascular disease.
On the other hand, studies regularly show that vegetarians exhibit the lowest incidence of heart problems. High intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and Mediterranean dietary patterns (rich in plant-based foods and unsaturated fats) have been shown to reduce the incidence of chronic diseases and associated risk factors, including body mass index and obesity.
Animal feeding practices also raise important health concerns. Corn and soybeans, for example, have been shown to absorb dioxins, PCBs, and other potential human carcinogens through air pollution. Once fed to animals, these persistent compounds can be stored in animal fat reserves. These harmful pollutants can later move up the food chain when animal fats left over from slaughter are rendered and used again for animal feed. As fats are recycled in the animal feeding system, the result is a higher concentration of dioxins and PCBs in the animal fats consumed by people. Animal and plant fats, both of which can store dioxins and PCBs, can compose up to 8 percent of animal feed rations.
CAFO workers suffer from numerous medical conditions, including repetitive motion injuries and respiratory illness associated with poor air quality. Studies indicate that at least 25 percent of CAFO workers experience respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and occupational asthma.
Slaughterhouse workers are also at risk for work-related health conditions. In early 2008, for example, an unknown neurological illness began afflicting employees at a factory run by Quality Pork Processors in Minnesota, which slaughters 1,900 pigs a day. The diseased workers suffered burning sensations and numbness as well as weakness in the arms and legs. All the victims worked at or near the "head table," using compressed air to dislodge pigs' brains from their skulls. Inhalation of microscopic pieces of pig brain is suspected to have caused the illness. After a CDC investigation, this practice was discontinued.
CAFOs can put neighboring communities at risk of exposure to dangerous air and water contaminants. More than a million Americans, for example, take drinking water from groundwater contaminated by nitrogen-containing pollutants, mostly derived from agricultural fertilizers and animal waste applications. Several studies have linked nitrates in the drinking water to birth defects, disruption of thyroid function, and various types of cancers. Further, the use of antibiotics on livestock over sustained periods is widely acknowledged to increase the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Infections from these new "superbugs" are difficult to treat and increase human risk of disease. In a study of 226 North Carolina schools, children living within three miles of factory farms had significantly higher asthma rates and more asthma-related emergency room visits than children living more than three miles away. A separate study found that people living close to intensive swine operations suffer more negative mood states (e.g., tension, depression, anger, reduced vigor, fatigue, and confusion) than control groups. Exposure to hydrogen sulfide--given off by concentrated animal feeding operations--has been linked to neuropsychiatric abnormalities.
Food production that is safe for the environment, humane to animals, and sound for workers and communities gives us the best chance for a food system that is safe and healthy for eaters and producers alike.