Finding Common Ground to Eliminate CAFOs

Advocates of “sustainable” animal agriculture and advocates of the humane treatment of animals have been fighting parallel battles against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).  The people that operate CAFOs may actually care about the well-being of their animals, but CAFOs simply concentrate too many animals in spaces too small to allow animals the space to express their naturally healthy animalistic tendencies. The result is chronic stress, resulting in aggressive and cannibalistic behaviors, injury, illness, and high death losses. Advocates of animal welfare and sustainable animal agriculture both want to eliminate the suffering of animals in CAFOs.


Sustainable agriculture advocates have focused their battle against CAFOs on their negative impacts on public health, the environment, and the economic and social quality of life in rural communities. Sustainable farmers understand that they must maintain the health and productivity of the land, their plants and animals, and their rural communities in order to be economically sustainable. Sustainable animal producers are also committed to the humane treatment of animals as an ethical principle of an integral, sustainable agriculture. They produce grass-based meat and milk and free-range and pastured pork and poultry and use deep-bedded housing systems that allow free movement of animals when confinement is necessary for protection from the elements.


Advocates for animal welfare are generally supportive of these and other practices of sustainable agriculture. However, they have focused their efforts on reducing or removing restrictions to animal movement in confinement facilities and allowing confined farm animals access to the out-of-doors. They are working to create more space and freedom for animals in CAFOs in order to at least diminish the inevitable stress of being confined in spaces that restrict movement and opportunities for socialization. Both groups also understand that animal welfare is not an economic necessity for profitable production. In fact, mistreating animals has proven to be profitable for investors in CAFOs. Neither group considers the mistreatment of animals as acceptable, no matter how profitable it may be.


Although they agree on virtually everything else, many advocates of sustainable animal agriculture and the humane treatment of animals disagree on the ultimate legitimacy of using animals for food. There are logical arguments on both sides of this contentious issue. How can any production process possibly be humane if its ultimate purpose or intention is the killing or slaughter of sentient, living beings? On the other hand, how can any system of production possibly be sustainable if it fails to recognize that the death of other living beings, including other sentient beings, is essential to the sustainability of human life on Earth? There are reasonable, logical responses to each of these questions; the answers are just not acceptable to those who ask them. Thus, the division between animal agriculture and animal welfare continues.


The basic problem with this division is that CAFO advocates have been able to use this philosophical divide to obscure, weaken, and blunt growing public opposition to CAFOs. They label proponents of new animal welfare legislation as “animal rightists” who care more about the comfort of animals than the welfare of people. They warn those in animal agriculture that regulations related to the treatment of animals are a “slippery slope” leading to the ultimate elimination of all animal agriculture. As a result, sustainable agriculture advocates tend to avoid taking strong positions on animal welfare issues, certainly not willing to oppose humane treatment of animals, but not willing to support those who oppose animal agriculture.


On the other side of the issue, many advocates of animal welfare see sustainable animal agriculture as a “slippery slope” leading to strengthening public acceptance of the legitimacy of agriculture, or at least delaying its ultimate rejection. They see free-range chickens, pastured pork, and grass-based dairies as equivalent to “greenwashing” an inherently inhumane and immoral system of food production in order to make it more publicly acceptable. Thus, many advocates of animal protection avoid taking strong positions on sustainable animal agriculture issues, not willing to openly oppose systems that treat animals more humanely, but not willing to support the continuation of animal agriculture.


The proponents of CAFOs have been able to use this “wedge issue” very effectively to confuse the issue and splinter public opposition to CAFOs.  Advocates of sustainable agriculture and animal welfare too often become unwitting collaborators with their common enemy. They are skillfully driven into separate camps because they are unable or unwilling to work together on this important issue, even though they obviously agree in their opposition and desire to ultimately eliminate CAFOs.


If we are to win the war against CAFOs, we must seek and find common ground on which to fight the battles. First, I am not suggesting that anyone should compromise on their core values or beliefs. Those who are opposed to all forms of animal agriculture on philosophical or moral grounds should not be expected to support any form of animal agriculture. Those who see nothing ethically or morally wrong with animal agriculture should not be expected to support outright opposition to animal agriculture in general. However, this should leave many, if not most, of the people who generally identify with one side of the other of the animal agriculture issue able to join forces on many specific issues without compromising our core principles of beliefs.


Opposing CAFOs seems a logical place to turn common interest into positive action. To do so, we first need to focus on the fundamental problem; not on specific environmental, social, or ethical consequences. The industrial approach to farming is the source of all the problems linked to CAFOs. Thus, the solution is not to fix specific problems but to eliminate this system of food-animal production – to eliminate CAFOs. Both advocates and opponents of animal agriculture agree that animals must be treated humanely, with dignity and respect, which is lacking in CAFOs – in fact, is impossible in CAFOs. We can also agree on other areas of mutual concern related to CAFOs, such as the protection of public health and support of independent family farms, without raising conflicts regarding the legitimacy of animal agriculture.


If we can’t work together to eliminate CAFOs, we are not going to be able to defend and protect animal well-being, public health, family farms, or rural communities. We must be willing to allow time and further human enlightenment to evolve toward a deeper understanding of relationships between humans and farm animals. Disagreements about the legitimacy of eating the flesh of animals are as old as human history. Perhaps in another century or two, people will either become comfortable killing and eating animals or they will quit killing and eating animals. But, this issue will not likely be resolved in the lifetime of anyone involved in the controversy today.


Advocates of animal agriculture and sustainable agriculture both face significant risks when they join forces in this battle. Eliminating CAFOs may be a slippery slope toward making animal agriculture acceptable or it may be a slippery slope toward ending animal agriculture. There is no way of knowing which direction the slope may turn until sometime in the future. But this is a “slope” we must be willing to “slide.” Allowing CAFOs to continue for even another twenty years will doom billions of animals to lives of unnecessary stress, pain, and suffering. We simply cannot allow the systematic abuse of animals to continue any longer than is absolutely necessary, regardless of what comes afterward.

I believe our respect or lack of respect for other living things, including farm animals, is a stronger reflection of our basic ethical or moral character than our beliefs, pro or con, about the legitimacy of animal agriculture. A lack of respect for farm animals reflects a fundamental flaw in the character and culture of American agriculture and America. Let’s join forces and do what we know in our hearts is the right and good thing to do: Let’s join forces to eliminate CAFOs. The consequences of our failure to do so would have implications far beyond farm animals and agriculture – like cultural cancer. Let’s agree to disagree about our philosophical differences on this issue, at least for the time being, and work together to rescue animals from the fate of a short life of misery in CAFOs.

John Ikerd