The significant growth in industrial-scale, factory-farmed livestock has contributed to a host of environmental, public health, economic, food safety and animal welfare problems. Thousands of animals in one location can generate millions of tons of manure annually, which pollutes water and air and can have health repercussions for neighbors and nearby communities. Consumers in distant markets also feel the impacts, through either foodborne illness outbreaks, other public health risks or the loss of regional food systems. Even most producers are not benefiting from this system of production because they are not getting paid much for the livestock that they raise.
The rise of factory farming was no accident. It resulted from public policy choices driven by big agribusinesses, especially meatpackers and processors that dominate the critical steps in the food chain between livestock producers and consumers. The silos and gentle meadows pictured on the labels of the food that most Americans buy have little relation to how that food is actually produced. Most of the pork, beef, poultry, dairy and eggs produced in the United States come from large-scale, confined livestock operations.
These animals produce tremendous amounts of manure. Food & Water Watch estimates that the livestock and poultry on the largest factory farms in 2012 produced 369 million tons of manure — almost 13 times more than the 312 million people in the United States.
This 13.8 billion cubic feet of manure is enough to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium 133 times. Unlike the household waste produced in an overwhelming majority of U.S. communities, which have municipal sewer systems, the manure and waste from livestock operations is untreated. Instead, factory farm waste is stored in manure pits or lagoons, and ultimately it is applied to farm fields as fertilizer. As the Wisconsin State Journal noted, “[u]nlike cities, which treat their waste, most of the large farms dispose of manure the same way farmers disposed of it in the Middle Ages — by spreading it on fields as fertilizer.”
Small, diversified farms that raise animals as well as other crops have always used manure as fertilizer without polluting water. The difference with factory farms is scale. They produce so much waste in one place that it must be applied to land in quantities that exceed the soil’s ability to incorporate it. The vast quantities of manure can — and do — make their way into the local environment, where they pollute air and water. Manure contains nitrogen, phosphorus and often bacteria that can impact the environment and human health. Manure lagoons leak, and farmers over-apply manure to their fields, which allows the waste to seep into local streams and groundwater. Residential drinking wells can be contaminated with dangerous bacteria that can sicken neighbors, and the runoff can damage the ecological balance of streams and rivers. In some cases, manure spills that reach waterways can kill aquatic life.
Large quantities of decomposing manure don’t just stink, they can be a health hazard as well. Noxious gas emissions from manure holding tanks and lagoons — including hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and methane — can cause skin rashes, breathing problems, and headaches, and long-term exposure can lead to neurological problems. For children, senior citizens and adults with other health problems, exposure to these fumes can cause even more problems.
Industrial livestock operations also can create public health hazards in other ways. The facilities are over-crowded and stressful to animals, making it easy for disease to spread. When thousands of beef cattle are packed into feedlots full of manure, bacteria can get on their hides and then into slaughterhouses. Contamination on even one steer can contaminate thousands of pounds of meat inside a slaughterhouse. In 2010, the crowded, unsanitary conditions at two Iowa egg companies caused a recall of more than half a billion potentially Salmonella tainted eggs and was linked to illness in nearly 1,500 people.