The Impact of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
In the past century there has been a substantial change in the way human beings raise and keep animals meant for food. While in the past there were great numbers of widely spaced small individual farms, now there are relatively few, but extremely large industrialized farms. And as the numbers of animals kept and slaughtered for human consumption increases, these industrialized farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO's, are having more and more of an impact on the environment and people around them. The concentration of animals causes a major problem with the waste products they produce, as well as the gases, chemicals, and other types of byproducts. And the increased use of antibiotics in the animals is beginning to have a profound effect on the health of not only the environment but the communities that exist around these industrialized farms. CAFO's, and their secondary industries, are also a large consumer of oil, gasoline, and other fuels which can have an indirect, but devastating effect on the environment. Luckily there are some who have come to recognize the problems, and potential future problems, involved in this type of animal farming and have begun to inform the public to the dangers these farms pose. And in response to this information, the public is beginning to force changes in the way these CAFO's operate and the impact they have on the environment and local communities.
Industrialized farms, called CAFO's, have all but replaced the local family farm when it comes to raising animals. For instance, in 1965 there were more than one million pig farms across the country but in the 21st century the totality of pig farms number just a little over 65,000. (Sayre) And even as the number of farms decreased, the total number of pigs being raised increased from 53 million to 65 million. The net result of this change has been the increased concentration of larger numbers of pigs onto fewer farms. And pigs are not the only animals to see change, this transformation has affected the production of other livestock like chickens and cattle.
Because so many animals are concentrated into a single spot, their waste can cause many problems. Manure and urine are often concentrated into waste lagoons and when they break, leak, or overflow send "dangerous microbes, nitrate pollution and drug-resistant bacteria into water supplies." ("Pollution from Giant Livestock Farms") These large waste lagoons are also the source of a number of toxic gases like methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide. These gases can effect the environment not just in the immediate area but can migrate over large distances to effect other areas as well. Because industrialized farms produce much more waste products than they can possible get rid of, they often use this waste as fertilizer by spraying it onto land. But because of the large amounts of waste produced, industrialized farms many times over-fertilize the land causing runoff and contamination of air and water.
Anyone who has come within a few miles of a CAFO could tell you that the smell of such a place greets a person well before they get near it. This stench is simply the symptom of a greater threat: poisonous gases. When manure decomposes it produces a number of gases, for example, hydrogen sulfide which is dangerous at even small doses and can cause irreversible effects ranging from "sore throat to seizures, comas and even death." ("Pollution from Giant Livestock Farms") But this is not the only threat posed by large amounts of animal waste, water supplies are often contaminated by nitrates which seep into the drinking water from lagoons and fields over-sprayed with manure. These nitrates have been linked to infant mortality as well as the outbreaks of diseases in areas where the drinking water has been contaminated. And when the waste from CAFO's runs off into the environment a number of chemicals enter the surrounding ecosystem causing ecological disruptions. Phosphorus and nitrogen are two byproducts of animal waste and in large amounts can "cause an explosion of algae that robs water of oxygen, killing aquatic life." ("Pollution from Giant Livestock Farms") This has led to the major increase in the deaths of fish in and around the areas where CAFO's operate.
While the continued operating of CAFO's causes problems for the environment, it also causes a problem for the health of humans working and living around them. In the history of human beings, the vast majority of pathogens, diseases which affect humans, "are thought to have originated in animals." (Sayre) Such diseases as tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza, pertussis, and the common cold are all believed to have come to humans from interactions with animals. With the development of antibiotic technology, it was thought that such diseases were a thing of the past. However, the overuse of antibiotics has spurred bacteria and viruses to evolve into antibiotic-resistant strains which pose a significant threat to human populations. Medical researchers claim that "in some pathogens, selection for resistance also results in increased virulence." (Sayre) In effect, by gaining antibiotic-resistance, some pathogens also become more likely to infect humans.
But it is not only the areas directly surrounding CAFO's, and the people who populate these areas that are at risk. Industrialized farms lower the cost of production for meat and poultry products which make them more likely to be consumed by the general public. Everywhere along the line, from the raising of animals to the slaughter facility, from the packaging centers, transportation system, and the local grocery stores, there is the possibility of contamination and danger to the public. For example, "Canada's largest waterborne disease outbreak, which infected 1,346 people and killed six, was traced to runoff from livestock farms into a town's water supply." (Sayre) And when the nation of Belgium was forced to remove all chickens and eggs from market shelves in 1999, there was a subsequent 40% decline in the number of Campylobacter infections in people. (Sayre) Scientists are beginning to document the direct link between CAFO's and threats to human populations.
While CAFO's have a direct effect on the local community and environment, they also can have an indirect effect as well. It is thought that "livestock production alone contributes to 18% of the global warming effect- more than the emissions from every single car, train, and plane on the planet." ("Energy Use and Climate Change") This not only includes the machinery included in the CAFO itself, but the crops used for the feed of animals involved in livestock production. Close to 90% of all soybean production, and almost a third of grain production, is used for animal feed. But cattle, for instance, are poor converters of grain to meat with a need to eat 10 to 16 pounds of grain in order to produce one pound of meat. In order to produce this much grain for animal feed, farmers must then use an inordinate amount of water to do so, causing close to 70% of the world's freshwater to be diverted for use in agriculture. Farmers are also clearing large tracts of the rainforest to be converted to agriculture, contributing "nearly 18% of the total global warming effect." ("Energy Use and Climate Change") And finally, because transportation is relatively inexpensive, the production of food contributes enormously to the amount of carbon emissions simply through transportation. Crops and meat are transported by train, plane, and truck, all of which emit greenhouse gases to some degree. When it is added up, the transportation of agricultural products across the country and around the globe is contributing to the problem of global warming.
If is seems that CAFO's are going to destroy the world, there are some things that people can do to stop it. Education is one way that can…