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Huge factory farm operations called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are growing in number. The advocates for CAFOs claim they are a necessary, more efficient way to produce cheap food. But is this true? Are there economical alternatives to industrial agriculture?
Opponents to CAFOs, backed up by a growing body of research, say there are better ways to economically raise meat. CAFOs are not the inevitable result of market forces. Alternative production methods can be economically efficient and technologically sophisticated, and can deliver abundant animal products while avoiding most of the problems caused by CAFOs
Are Factory Farms more Efficient?
Large CAFOs are not the only farming method that can be efficient or profitable. Recent studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that almost 40 percent of medium sized animal feeding operations are about as cost effective as the average large hog CAFO, and many other studies have provided similar results.
In addition CAFOs do not necessarily result in lower prices for meat, milk, and eggs for consumers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that retail prices for meat, milk, and eggs have continued to rise, in some cases dramatically, during those periods when animal production was moving off of independent family farms and into contract CAFOs.
CAFOs only appear to be more efficient because they do not account for all the costs of production. Cheap subsidized feed grains are a major hidden advantage. Large factory farms have a tremendous cost to the environment and public health and well being. CAFOs are not more efficient when the environmental costs are taken into account. In addition CAFOs have benefited from taxpayer supported pollution cleanup programs. Public policies that allow overuse of antibiotics at the expense of public health allow CAFOs to exist. In Kewaunee County taxpayers have contributed over $14.4 million dollars in federal and state subsidies and grants to the CAFOs.
What are the alternatives?
Opponents of CAFOs say smaller operations using a mixture of traditional and new methods can work without the downsides of huge factory farms. There is evidence that operations smaller than CAFOs can be cost-effective. Hog hoop barns, which are healthier for the animals and much smaller than CAFOs, can produce comparable or even higher profits per unit at close to the same price. Research in Iowa has also found that raising hogs on pasture may produce animals at a lower cost than CAFOs. Other studies have shown intensive rotational grazing can produce milk at a cost similar to confined dairy operations, but with added environmental benefits. Pasture operations have lower start up costs. Rotational grazing is resource efficient and does not require energy and capital-intensive inputs such as heating, ventilation, and cooling systems, housing construction, imported industrial feeds, and mechanized manure management systems.
Even traditional family farms could compete with a level playing field. Thousands of family farmers are managing appropriately-scaled, grass-fed meat, dairy and egg farms. One Iowa study said,
“It is important to realize that Iowa can raise hogs profitably, sustainably, and humanely without incurring the costs that now burden county governments. Iowa has over 1,000 hoop structures that raise hogs on deep bedded straw without resorting to inhumane confinement, industrial manure disposal, and tax breaks. Iowa independent hog producers also raise hogs for natural livestock producers such as Niman Ranch, Organic Valley, Patchwork Farms, Eden Pork, and a number of other “alternative” and “niche market” hog brands. With the consumer trend toward natural and organic foods, farmers can see a profit while employing sustainable practices that have minimal negative environmental impact.” (CAFOs Assessment of Impacts on Health, Local Economies, and the Environment, Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy Maharishi University of Management, HYPERLINK “http://istpp.org/pdf/istpp_cafo.pdf”http://istpp.org/pdf/istpp_cafo.pdf )
One obvious solution for the huge environmental damage of CAFOs is to require sewage treatment plants. We would not tolerate cities of 26,000 that did not treat their sewage. We should not allow it to happen with animals. If Reick’s Family Farms plans to spend close to $18 million to build the Bayfield CAFO. One would think the additional cost for a sewage treatment plant would be feasible.
Another solution is to use the waste for other purposes. For example, capture the methane and use it for greenhouses, kilns, or turning the manure into bagged garden fertilizer. To be fair, traditional agriculture has not done a good job of handling waste either. Non-point pollution from many smaller farms is a problem. This waste problem could create opportunities for sewage hauling and treatment businesses to serve farms of all sizes.
Farm cooperatives have traditionally been a way for small farmers to better compete. Strengthening this proven organizational solution could be better for communities, small farmers, and the environment. Many smaller farmers provide more economic boost to a local area than large operations. There is a growing desire by consumers for locally grown food. Few large CAFOs sell products locally without going through distant middlemen.
If CAFOs are to continue better public regulation is needed to control the downsides. The Socially Responsible Agriculture Project made recommendations in their report on Kewaunee County, Wisconsin (see The Rap Sheets, Industrial Dairies in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, The Regulatory Failure of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: A Threat to Public Health and the Environment, HYPERLINK “http://sraproject.org/pdfs/SRAP_rapsheet_2015.pdf”http://sraproject.org/pdfs/SRAP_rapsheet_2015.pdf ). They suggested strengthening DNR permitting, oversight, and enforcement by including more public notice and comment periods, mandating tougher engineering requirements on CAFO related infrastructure, creating a statewide fee-funded clean-up fund, and local environment monitoring. They also recommended repealing the failed 2004 Livestock Facility Siting Law to return decision-making to local officials and citizens who live with the impact of industrial animal facility operations.
Nostalgia for the good old days of small family farms is not necessarily the answer. Many small farms operations are not good at handling manure run off. They are just smaller and less noticeable. But the huge size of many CAFOs is inherently a problem. We must find solutions that meet the needs of local communities, consumers, and the environment. If we don’t we may find that “cheap” food can be very expensive.