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The Facts on Factory Farms

A variety of controversies have seriously eroded public trust in American agriculture. Genetically modified crops (GMOs), agricultural chemicals, and concentrated animals feeding operations (CAFOs) or “factory farms” are among the most prominent on a growing list of public concerns. With respect to GMOs, more than 30 states are considering legislation requiring labeling of food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients.[1] Maine and Connecticut already have labeling laws that are pending implementation. The world’s most popular weed-killer, Roundup, has just been identified by the World Health Organization as a “probable carcinogen.”[2] The most commonly used herbicide on U.S. farms, Atrazine, has long been identified as a probably endocrine disruptor linked to a host of potential adverse health impacts.[3]

Nowhere are the public concerns and controversies about agriculture more prominent than for CAFOs –frequently called “factory farms.” CAFOs actually are far more like factories than farms. Nine states have banned the use of gestation crates in CAFOs, which continuously confine breeding hogs is spaces so small they can’t even turn around.[4] Only a veto by Governor Christie prevented New Jersey from become the tenth, and bans are under active consideration in several other states.  McDonalds has been joined by a growing list of restaurant chains demanding “cage-free” eggs for their customers.[5] Legislation that has been persistently proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives would ban the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals – a common practice in factory farms. The legislation has been blocked thus far by the large drug companies.[6] Under growing pressure for action, the FDA reluctantly adopted “voluntary guidelines,” for antibiotic use in CAFOs, which the drug companies endorsed.[7]

In Illinois, Peter Goldsmith of the University of Illinois recently completed research examining the public “legitimacy” of factory farms.  He wrote: “as animal production sites grow larger they create more problems and the intense controversy surrounding CAFOs incites strong local public participation.”[8] He found people in Illinois who participate in public hearings consistently indicate they have “no confidence” in Illinois laws regulating CAFOs or the government officials who are supposed to enforce CAFO regulations. Goldsmith revealed that “seventy percent of the individuals opposed the proposed facilities and 89% of statements made by local residents and other interested citizens challenged the legitimacy of proposed CAFOs.” He found a mere” 5% of the residents supported CAFOs” – the vast majority of supporters being outside consultants for CAFO operators and government officials.

In response to growing public opposition, the “industrial agricultural establishment” has launched a nationwide, multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign designed to – in their words – “increase confidence and trust in today’s agriculture.”[9]  Food Dialogues, just one initiative of the broader campaign, is sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance—an organization whose funders and board members include the American Farm Bureau Federation along with Monsanto and DuPont – both of which have pledged $500,000 per year to the campaign. The campaign features the “faces of farming and ranching”—articulate, attractive young farmers, obviously chosen to put the best possible face on the increasingly ugly business of industrial agriculture. A recent study by Friends of the Earth documents that various “front groups” have been spending more than $25 million per year to defend industrial agriculture.[10] The campaigns have hired some of the nation’s top public relations firms to try to clean up the tarnished public image of industrial agriculture – and they are very good at what they do.

Americans are being challenged to separate fact from fallacy in deciding what kind of agriculture and food system they want, or at least are willing to tolerate. For decades, defenders of industrial agriculture had accused their critics of relying on emotions and misinformation rather than “sound science.” Now that the scientific evidence is mounting against industrial agriculture, public relations experts are advising advocates to emphasize “emotional appeals,” such as “the faces of farmers” – dismissing “sound-science” as no longer effective in shaping public opinion. The American people must ultimately decide for themselves which emotional appeals they find believable and which assertions they believe are facts and which are fallacies.

In spite of persistent claims to the contrary, the growing public concerns about industrial agriculture are confirmed in reams of highly-credible scientific studies. For example, an extensive 2½-year study of industrial farm animal production was commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust, a highly-reputable, non-partisan organization. Their 2008 report concluded: “The current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves.”[11] The prestigious commissioners, including a former governor and a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, stated: “the negative effects of the IFAP system are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to ignore.  Significant changes must be implemented and must start now.” Five years later, an assessment of the industry’s response to the Pew Report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health indicated that few if any positive changes had been made. [12]  Meanwhile the scientific evidence supporting the initial indictment of CAFOs has continued to grow.

The corporate public relations campaigns claim that today’s modern farmers are responsible stewards of the environment. The facts are that industrial agriculture has long been known to be the major cause of huge “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and elsewhere. While mismanagement of fertilizers is the major contributors to the dead zones, CAFOs also are documented polluters of streams and groundwater.  For example, 1998 EPA study found 35,000 miles of streams in 22 states and ground water in 17 states that had been polluted by industrial livestock operations.[13] At the time, the EPA was preparing to sue CAFO operators for violating the Clean Water Act. But there was a change in the political administration in DC, so no action was taken, and no similar studies have been done since. As a last defense, CAFO operators claim they are doing a better job of manure management than the traditional independent farmers they displaced. However, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has documented a three-fold increase in “impairments” of water bodies in Iowa between 2002 and 2012, years when CAFO were rapidly replacing independent Iowa family hog farms.[14]

Water pollution isn’t just an environmental issue. The public health risks of CAFOs posed by water polluted by livestock manure are essentially the same as those posed by untreated human sewage. A “small” CAFO, meaning 1,000 animal units or 2,500 head of hogs generates biological waste equivalent to the human waste from a municipality of 7,500 to 10,000 people.[15] There are logical reasons for requiring sophisticated, multi-stage waste treatment systems for municipalities of 7,500 to 10,000 people. It would be unthinkable that the people in a municipality of 10,000 people would be allowed to spread their untreated sewage in their backyards to be flushed away with the storm water. Yet it is legal to spread even far larger amounts of raw sewage from CAFOs. Effective waste treatment systems for CAFOs are available but have consistently been deemed “economically infeasible,” which simply means they couldn’t compete with smaller, livestock farms if they were forced to protect public health.