The Case Against CAFOs

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The 2007 Successful Farming Pork Powerhouses list is out, and the results are predictable: the 20 biggest swine operations in the nation yet again added sows to their herds during the past year. In this case, those 20 “Powerhouses” increased their breeding herd by 5 percent, for a total of 3.155 million sows. Reports Successful Farming: “The June USDA Hogs and Pigs Report said there are 6.12 million breeding animals in the U.S., meaning these largest producers control almost half of the nation’s swine breeding herd.” All this expansion occurred at a time when feed costs could go up as much as 40 percent because of the ethanol boom. At first blush, it’s an example of agribusiness plowing ahead against the odds to feed the world a better pork chop. But here’s some advice: read the Successful Farming Pork Powerhouses story, and then, for a reality check, take a look at a recent Environmental Health Perspectives paper on the economic and human health impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The paper makes it clear this isn’t about producing pork—it’s about garnering market power at all costs. The Big 20 are racing to see who can control the most sows in the shortest period of time, and they don’t care who or what gets hurt in the process—independent farmers, the environment, rural communities and consumers are all expendable in this game.

Factory farming’s apologists argue that the concentration of production in fewer and fewer hands is inevitable because it’s the most efficient way to raise hogs. But the dirty little secret of the hog industry is that family-sized, independent farm operations are actually pretty efficient at what they do. Economists and animal scientists concede that these smaller operations do an excellent job of getting the most pork out of a pound of feed while keeping pig mortality down. They also produce a good-tasting product.

But the Smithfields of the world don’t make as much money when they have to pay a fair market price for a handcrafted product. They make much more when they own the hogs from piglet to processing. That means they need to push the independents out by denying them access to an open market, as LSP documented in our 1999 report, Killing Competition with Captive Supplies. It also means that to make pork production worth their while, they need to pack as many animals on as little land as possible, creating a situation where manure is no longer a valuable fertilizer, but a waste disposal problem, and wealth is exported out of a community faster than a load of hogs pulled by a Peterbilt.

The authors of the Environmental Heath Perspectives paper are researchers that hail from places quite familiar with hog production: Iowa State University, University of Iowa, University of North Carolina and Northern Illinois University. These researchers have done an excellent job of summarizing the economic and health research that’s been done on the CAFO phenomenon over the years. As one would suspect, the news is not good. Factory farming’s boosters can claim they create jobs all they want, but the research shows in the end CAFOs suck money out of communities, lower property values and in general are an economic burden for most everyone but the owners and investors.

And the health problems caused by these operations is also well documented. Both CAFO workers and neigbors report higher rates of respiratory illness, for example. The employee turnover in one of these operations is quite high for a reason. Too bad the neighbors—often lifelong residents of the area—don’t always have the option of moving out.

You don’t have to live next to a CAFO owned by a member of the Pork Powerhouse Top 20 Club to be exposed to the negative consequences of factory hog farming. The trickle down effect of the pork industry’s super stars is insidious. During the past month, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking to farmers and other rural residents in two separate communities that are being inundated by factory pork.

One hog operation, which was just finished in southern Minnesota’s Mower County, is owned by Northfield, Minn.-based Holden Farms. Holden is number 17 on the Successful Farming list, up from 19 a year ago. Holden doesn’t have a good reputation in rural Minnesota and had to literally sneak into this particular community. It’s not hard to predict what will result from this manure factory. Holden will probably move up the Pork Powerhouse list in 2008, and it will do it on the backs of rural residents in places like Mower County.
The other operation I’ve been researching is owned by a producer who is a Holden Farms wannabe. He’s far from being a Power Powerhouse, and the location he’s picked for his facility is in southwest Wisconsin’s Vernon County—far from a swine producing mecca. But he thinks if he raises tens of thousands of pigs in one spot he will become “competitive” and get a chance to play with the big boys in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and North Carolina.

Instead, years down the road he will find himself with a bunch of alienated neighbors, a mountain of debt, and a bunch of pigs no packer will buy, because the market will be controlled even further by the Pork Powerhouse gang. This hog “farmer” won’t be the only loser: Earlier this month, I visited the site where he wants to build this mini-Pork Powerhouse: it’s on fractured karst geology ripe with sinkholes and it’s surrounded by family farms. Oh yeah, a primary school is a mile away as the crow flies (the Environmetal Health Perspectives paper cites research showing kids in schools within three miles of CAFOs had higher rates of respiratory problems).

People like our friend in southwest Wisconsin read the Pork Powerhouse list each October and pine to be on it. And we all pay the price of such porcine aspirations.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The authors of the Environmental Health Perspectives paper make several strong recommendations, including:

  • Make community health studies related to the effects of CAFOs a priority. For too long factory farms have been given a pass by regulators and health professionals who allow their owners to hide behind the shield of, “We’re a farm, not a factory.”
  • Prioritize funding for reseaerching sustainable methods of livestock production. There are better ways to raise hogs, and farmers right here in Minnesota are proving it. But the overwhelming bulk of ag research dollars are still poured into archaic factory systems that are bad news economically and environmentally.
  • Local government control of where CAFOs can be located should be supported and strengthened. Here in Minnesota, local townships have shown they know how to balance economic, environmental and health considerations when determining where CAFOs can be located. Unfortunately, in places like Wisconsin and Iowa, local government control has been gutted, and the results are predictable.
  • Permits for manure storage basins should require bonding for performance and remidiation. Why should a cash-strapped rural community pay for the damage caused by a factory farm’s manure spill while its owners cash in on Wall Street?

In case you’re thinking this paper is just a “think piece” that isn’t calling for immediate action, consider the final recommendation:

“The current state of knowledge of community impacts of CAFOs warrants support for the American Public Health Association recommendation for a moratorium on all new CAFO construction.”

That would make a nice lead sentence for Successful Farming‘s 2008 Pork Powerhouses article.

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