Coping with CAFOs - No More "Business as Usual"

I first became involved in issues related to CAFOs, or large-scale confinement animal feeding operations, back in the mid-1990s. I was working on sustainable agriculture programs at the University of Missouri and was contacted by some farmers in North Missouri who were concerned about the negative impacts of a large corporate CAFO operation that was moving into their community. I agreed to check it out for them. The more I learned, the more I agreed with their concerns. And, I have been working with rural people in similar situations ever since, for 20 years – in 17 states, 4 provinces in Canada, and even in Wales.


We certainly haven’t won all of our battles, but we have been winning the hearts and minds of a lot of people – simply by telling them the truth about CAFOs. It looked like the expansion of CAFOs had leveled out a bit in the early 2000s after they had taken over the pork and poultry industries by driving the independent family farmers out of business. However, they have started expanding again over the past few years – fueled by expanding exports of pork to China and lower corn prices. And, they are now rapidly taking over dairy production. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that “business as usual” in trying to protect family farmers and rural communities from CAFOs is no longer enough.


We can no longer depend on the enforcement of even the minimal laws regulating CAFOs. The big corporations that control CAFOs have too much political power in state capitols and in Washington, DC. We have to change “business as usual” in government regulation of CAFOs. We can no longer depend on CAFO operators to voluntarily comply with “best management practices” or to be “good neighbors.” Too many CAFOs are controlled by people who don’t live in the rural areas where their operations are located, or even in the same states – or countries. It’s time to change “business as usual” in dealing with operators of CAFOs.


As more people are learning the truth about CAFOs, there is growing public opposition. However, the “industrial agricultural establishment” has responded with a massive corporately-fund public relations campaign. They are attempting to use the positive public image of traditional independent “family farms” to deceive the public into accepting CAFOs as a natural evolution of agriculture or modern farming. Nothing could be further from the truth. CAFOs are not “traditional family farms,” they are the epitome of “factory farms” – more accurately “animal factories.”


Real family farming is a “way of life” not just another bottom-line business. Certainly, farmers need to make a living, but real farmers care about the land and they care about their neighbor and their customers. They aren’t willing to threaten public health, destroy their neighbors’ quality of life, or mistreat their animals just for the sake of profits. CAFOs are not real farms; they are economic bottom-line businesses. Period. It’s time to change “business as usual,” reject the corporate propaganda, and tell the truth about CAFOs.


CAFOs are “industrial operations.” They treat their animals like biological machines and dump tons of biological waste into the environment. Their wastes contain over 300 chemical and biological contaminants that pollute the air and water. A hog CAFO with just under 2,500 hogs, which is virtually unregulated under current law, produces as much biological waste as a municipality of 7,500 to 10,000 people. This manure is applied to land as untreated sewage, and when applied in quantities typical of CAFOs, it poses an unacceptable, scientifically-proven threat to public health. It’s time to change “business as usual” in regulating the disposal of livestock manure.


Contrary to the corporately-funded PR campaign, CAFOs present scientifically-documented health risks to consumers of animal products. Recalls of meat and eggs contaminated with infectious bacteria, such as Salmonella and E-Coli, have become almost commonplace. In addition, large percentages of bacterial contaminants are found to be resistant to multiple antibiotics. CAFOs have long been known to be ideal breeding grounds for antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as MRSA, now kill more people in the US than AIDS. It is way past time to change “business as usual” and stop the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals.


The corporate PR claims that CAFOs are good, clean, comfortable places to raise animals. However, raising livestock in close confinement is inherently inhumane for farm animals that have evolved to be out of doors with space to roam. Too many animals are crowded in spaces too small, forced to grow too fast and produce too much to allow for humane treatment as living, sentient beings. It’s time to change “business as usual” and stop the mistreatment of farm animals.


I am on the boards of directors of two organizations that help people in rural communities who are confronted with the threats of CAFOs: Jefferson County Farmers and Neighbors and the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. Both organizations also support the pasture-based, free-range, organic, humanely-raised, and other approaches to sustainable animal husbandry. Contrary to corporate PR, there are many such economically viable alternatives to CAFOs, and more are emerging with growing public concern about CAFOs.


These farmers apply manure in quantities that can decompose naturally and are fully used as fertilizer by growing crops. These farming systems naturally produce more nutritious foods and don’t require routine antibiotics because the animals stay healthy. These family farmers respect the rights of their neighbors, treat their animals humanely, and are committed to caring for the land, air, and water for the benefit of future generations. These farmers know it’s time to change “business as usual” – and they deserve our support.


To meet the new challenges of CAFOs, we do not need to rely on public relations gimmicks; we need only tell the truth about CAFOs. We will ultimately win the hearts and minds of the people by simply telling the truth, even if this isn’t the “usual way to do business.” CAFOs must be either effectively regulated or eliminated and replaced with real family farms. In the meantime, people in rural communities must do whatever is necessary to protect their basic rights to a healthy environment – including taking legal actions against government agencies or CAFO operators whenever their communities are threatened. It’s time to change “Business as Usual.”


John Ikerd

(This piece was adapted from a presentation I made at the JFAN Annual Meeting in Fairfield, IA in October 2013.)