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  • John Ikerd

The Economic Realities of CAFOs

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

I don’t like watching videos of my own presentations, but I force myself to do it from time to time. I know how I feel about presentations after I finish, but I also need to have some idea of how I come across to live audiences or in online videos. The video below is one I felt I needed to critique, regardless of how good I felt about it afterwards. This was my first in-person presentation since the MOSES Organic Conference in February 2020. I have had about as many speaking opportunities as usual since then, but everything until last weekend had been online. I’m going on 82 years old, and my time doing this sort of thing is winding down. I would rather quit too soon than embarrass myself by staying on the road too long.

So, I watched the video. I felt okay about it and hope others do as well. I felt I stumbled over words about as many times as usual. At one point early on I said that “agriculture is the number one source of ‘non pollutants’ of streams and lakes.” I meant to say “non-point source” pollutants. I hope that misspeak wasn’t too confusing, since I went on to say agriculture was a major contributor to dead-zones in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. After a few other less serious gaffs early on, I thought the talk went fairly well. In all honesty, I didn’t think the mistakes were any worse than those in my speaking and writing throughout most of my professional career. If I had strived for perfection, I would never have gotten anything done.

My main point in writing this piece is that I know with age the quality of my work will diminish. People eventually will quit asking me for help, or I will quit to avoid embarrassing myself. So, I would really like to find some other younger agricultural economists willing to help the people who otherwise would continue asking me for help. It’s not that I don’t enjoy meeting new people, renewing old acquaintances, and doing whatever I can to help people in need—all of which I did on my recent trip to Oconomowoc, WI. It’s just that there are more people who need help than I can help, and more people will need more help in the future.

Increasingly, academic and professional ecologists, sociologists and public health experts are contributing to the scientific critique of the industrial agri-food system. As I said in the opening remarks of my presentation, the major newspapers and other mass media increasingly are regularly featuring articles that document the negative impacts of industrial agriculture on the natural environment, public health, and quality of life in rural communities. Rural sociologists, in particular, have provided leadership in documenting the corporate takeover of the American agri-food system. With very few exceptions, agricultural economists have been absent from this critique of agricultural industrialization.

Assertions that industrial agriculture is an inevitable consequence of a free-market economy and is the only economic means of meeting the needs of society go unchallenged by the agricultural economic community. The most basic understanding of economic theory and an abundance of data and science-based information make clear that neither of these assertions are true. Still, the vast majority of agricultural economists seem reluctant, or absolutely refuse, to confront the economic realities of agricultural industrialization.

Reasons for this reluctance are necessarily speculative. However, I had a 30-year academic career as an agricultural economist in four different Land Grant Universities. Admittedly, those experiences are somewhat dated now, but I have more recent reason to believe the institutional pressures to defend the industrial agri-food status quo are still pretty strong. Regardless, the primary responsibility of agricultural economists employed by publicly funded institutions is to serve the public interest, rather than corporate or political interest. They are responsible to tell the truth, to the best of their ability—regardless of the consequences.

Anytime I have felt it was necessary to remind university administrators of this responsibility, I was not fired nor was I prohibited from doing what I thought should be done to fulfill my responsibilities to the people. These actions likely did nothing to further my career, either academically or financially. However, I was not forced to compromise my integrity.

I suspect the same would be true for any agricultural economists today who choose to continue providing the kind of help to people that I have been trying to provide. An agricultural economist who chooses to make this the focus of his or her career could likely make up any sacrifice of income by charging consulting and speaking fees to those who can afford to pay and by serving as expert witnesses in court cases. I have had similar opportunities but could afford not to exploit them and have valued my independence more than additional income.

In my recent presentation in Oconomowoc, I focused on CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, as the epitome of industrial agriculture. My question is who is going to be willing to step forward in the future to confront the economic myths of CAFOs with economic reality?

· CAFOs are not a result of free markets but of government policies that have allowed corporate consolidation to progress far beyond any benefit to society.

· CAFOs are not simply a modern version of the traditional family farms, which were managed as a social and ethical way of life as well as a means of making a living.

· CAFOs have not, will not, keep food prices affordable but have and will continue to enable agri-food corporations to retain excess profits, causing food prices to rise faster than the CPI.

· CAFOs do not support rural communities but have forced more economically efficient family farmers out of business causing rural economies and communities to wither and die.

· CAFOs are not the future of animal agriculture but could be the end of animal agriculture as growing public concerns linked to CAFOs are being attributed to animal agriculture in general.

· CAFOs are not necessary to “feed the world,” don’t currently feed most of the people of the world, aren’t needed to feed the world, and couldn’t feed the world, regardless.

· CAFOs don’t have a moral or ethical right to operate, even when they operate according to current regulations. Economic rights should not be given priority over basic human rights.

CAFOs are the epitome of the failed system of industrial agriculture.

Who is going to continue to tell the economic truth about industrial agriculture when I am no longer able to do so? If you are interested in taking on this challenge, send me an email at . I will put you in contact with people in a few organizations that can help you connect with those who need your help.

Highly credible references supporting the above assertions are provided in my paper, "The Economic Realities of CAFOs": .

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