The majority of food produced as meats in the U.S. comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrialized systems that, by their very nature, degrade the ecosystems around them. But “to be economical and efficient, farming needs healthy ecosystems,” notes “A Regenerative Secret,” the important documentary video above.
This stark contrast between two farming methods is at the heart of the film. One, the industrialized model favored in the U.S., is steadily destroying the environment while the other, known as regenerative agriculture, is trying to rebuild it.
Why CAFOs Are Destroying the Planet
CAFOs house hundreds to even millions of animals in small spaces, confining animals into unnatural, mostly indoor (often windowless) settings where disease propagates and animal welfare is an afterthought. Some CAFOs, such as those for livestock, may also include feedlots, where animals may roam outdoors.
But unlike the green pastures you may envision when you picture cows grazing outside, feedlots crowd hundreds of thousands of cattle into small pens that are devoid of greenery. The animals trample over mud, dust and an excess of feces and urine, which washes into nearby waterways.
Raising large numbers of animals in such an unhealthy system leads to disastrous environmental outputs. According to the environmental organization Sierra Club:1
The amount of urine and feces produced by the smallest CAFO is equivalent to the quantity of urine and feces produced by 16,000 humans.
CAFO waste is usually not treated to reduce disease-causing pathogens, nor to remove chemicals, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals or other pollutants.
Waste is often collected into noxious “lagoons” for storage or sprayed onto neighboring fields.
Over 168 gases are emitted from CAFO waste, including hazardous chemicals such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane.
Airborne particulate matter is found near CAFOs and can carry disease-causing bacteria, fungus or other pathogens.
Animals frequently die in CAFOs. Their carcasses, often in large numbers, must be dealt with.
Infestations of flies, rats and other vermin are commonplace around CAFOs and therefore around CAFO neighbors.
CAFOs Devastate Water, Air and Soil
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), manure from industrial agriculture is the primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways.2 The resulting damage includes an excess of nutrients that lead to algae overgrowth, depleting the water of oxygen and killing fish and other marine life in expansive dead zones.
This, combined with the excess fertilizers applied to monocrops like corn and soy (much of them used to feed CAFO animals), sends a steady stream of nitrogen and phosphorus to both surface and groundwater, spreading potentially disease-causing organisms and unsustainable amounts of nutrients along the way.
In fact, in the U.S., agriculture poses the greatest threat to water quality and is single-handedly impairing drinking water supplies across the country. CAFOs are also toxic to the air. Research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters demonstrated that in certain densely populated areas, emissions from farming far outweigh other sources of particulate matter air pollution.3
As nitrogen fertilizers break down into their component parts, ammonia, a byproduct of fertilizer and animal waste, is released into the air. When ammonia in the atmosphere reaches industrial areas, it combines with pollution from diesel and petroleum combustion, creating microparticles.
CAFO workers and neighboring residents alike report higher incidence of asthma, headaches, eye irritation and nausea. Research published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine also revealed that markers of lung function were related to how far people lived from CAFOs.4
The closer they lived to the factory farms, and the greater the density of livestock, the more impairments in lung function were revealed. Lung function of neighboring residents declined in concert with increased levels of CAFO-caused ammonia air pollution, the study revealed.5
At the same time, CAFOs and the industrial monocrops used to feed CAFO animals destroy soil, depleting it of nutrients and adding an excess of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
For example, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, the most widely used herbicide globally, shuts down amino acid synthesis, followed by inhibition of protein synthesis necessary for plant growth. When that happens, it makes the plant more susceptible to pathogens in the soil.
Glyphosate also acts as a mineral chelator, and minerals such as zinc, copper, and manganese act as cofactors in many enzymes. This mineral suppression opens the plant up to disease and when minerals are bound to glyphosate in the plant, they will not be available to your body when you eat it. Instead, those minerals will be excreted or stored in your body along with the glyphosate.