Environmental Problems
Big Agriculture Acting Badly

The environmental problems caused by all types of captive animal feeding operations, or CAFO's, is the most documented and indisputable dark side of animal factories.  It doesn't matter if it is cattle feed lots, dairy operations, chicken or egg factories, hog breeding and raising or fish farms, they all pollute.

Furthermore the pollution is ubiquitous, fouling waterways, groundwater, air and soil.  Wetlands have been destroyed; beautiful rivers and tributaries turned into algae choked cesspools devoid of life, pastures ruined by excess nitrates, phosphates and toxic residues from antibiotics, hormones and even dangerous heavy metals.  

Oceans are so filled with industrial effluents and animal factory waste that it is no longer safe to eat any ocean creature, all are contaminated by excess levels of mercury, cadmium and other trace metals. 

The main questions surrounding the environmental problems are:

  • How did they get so bad?
  • Are they reversible and if so, how long will it take and what will it take?
  • What are they doing to our food supply and thus what is it doing to our health; especially that of our young people?
  • The last question will be addressed in the next section, CAFO's and health, and the first two examined below.

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    The way it used to be

    Environmental problems from farming weren’t an issue when farms were small, family-owned enterprises.  Typically this is characterized as "sustainable" farming. 

    Sustainable means "natural" and that means the animals are given adequate space for free ranging and allowed to eat whatever the animal evolved to eat such as grass for cattle, insects and seeds for poultry, rooting and foraging for hogs, and insects and smaller fish for larger fish.

    A great discussion of what sustainable means can be found at, where else but, Sustainable Table.

    It means that animal density is not so large that the pasture cannot absorb and recycle the manure on its own and it means that the farm's layout is such that the animals can be rotated to various pasture areas so as to avoid overgrazing and destruction of grasses cycle of regeneration.

    It also means that the natural synergy of farm life is allowed to work.  The synergy of a sustainable farm is that grass grows, animals eat the grass and move on and the grass recovers and grows, poultry follows after the herd cleaning up the maggots in the cow pies and other insects attracted by the decomposing manure, thus flies are kept in check.  If hogs are on the farm, they can keep forested areas healthy.

    So, are you ready to try a little sustainable farming on a very small scale in your backyard or on your patio?  If so, visit the Burpee people at the link below and they will get you started.

    Burpee Fruit Seeds & Plants

    The stage is set

    Environmental problems appeared with the realization that large scale production meant more money.  In a word, greed.  Large scale meat and dairy production meant that the largest amount of animals had to be confined into the smallest amount of land. 

    The factory production line was adapted to the farm.  The McDonald's model of training workers to do one task over and over at minimum wage with little training was brought to the high volume animal farm, which was no longer a farm by any stretch of the imagination, it became an animal factory.

    Instead of a variety of life and crops on a single farm, only one animal or crop was raised in long, low row houses of animals or one crop occupying miles and miles of land.  It was corn or soybeans for crops and either hogs, chickens, beef cattle or dairy cattle for the animal factories, but never a variety. 

    This became the modern "monoculture", totally unsustainable and extremely damaging to the environment.

    Little or no thought was given to waste management from these huge animal factories.  Several thousand hogs in close confinement, or several thousand cows in a feed lot, or tens of thousands of chickens, can churn out an unimaginable amount of urine and manure.

    For a short digression, look at the book pictured above. CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, is a powerful indictment of modern food production.

    It is edited by Daniel Imhoff of Watershedmedia.org fame and he brings together the most respected, knowledgeable experts in sustainable, humane animal husbandry.

    The CAFO system is a horrible enterprise for everyone concerned except the corporate owners who profit from the misery but as its contributing authors show, it doesn't have to be this way. Ultimately, CAFO offers a compelling vision for a healthier food system: one that is humane, sound for farmers and communities, and safer for consumers and the environment.   Click on the book's cover to look it over or buy it from Amazon.com.

    Back to the subject at hand, what happened to all of this foul smelling animal waste?  The animal factory answer was to dig 20 or 30 foot deep holes in the ground, each one the size of several football fields, and just pipe the stuff into the hole. 

    Would you believe they called these enormous open air cesspools "lagoons"?  Then when the lagoon got full, they just sprayed it onto nearby fields, to be absorbed by the soil and recycled by plant life, whether natural grasslands or planted crops.

    Then the environmental problems mushroomed.

    Not Isolated Events

    Jonathan Foer, in his book "Eating Animals", (below) tags 1923 as the birth year of the factory farm.  He tells how it was a real fluke that a southern Delaware housewife who raised a small flock of chickens for the family received 500 chicks instead of the 50 that she had ordered. 

    She decided to have a go at raising all 500 and kept them indoors through the winter, fed them a new supplement that came on the market and the chicks grew.  Three years later, her flock was up to 10,000 and nine years later she was farming 250,000 birds. 

    Today southern Delaware is the chicken capital of the U.S. churning out 250 million broilers a year; no other U.S. city or county comes close.  Chickens are the largest source of income in the area and are responsible for polluting a third of all groundwater in the growing areas with nitrates from all the chicken manure. 

    Along with the income came huge environmental problems and it has been downhill ever since.

    Flash forward to the late 1980's and early 1990's where David Kirby picks up the story in his book, Animal Factory, shown at the top of the page.  Click on the book cover to check it out. 

    Kirby details how the factory farming of hogs in southeast North Carolina brought such pollution to the area that it killed the Neuse River. 

    Then he flashes to Washington state’s Yakima Valley in the late 1980's where factory dairy farms destroyed the quality of life in the communities surrounding the mega-dairies. The next stop was Elmwood, Illinois in the mid-90's where 7000 head hog farms wreaked their destruction throughout the countryside.

    Michael Pollan in his book, Omnivores Dilemma, talks about the environmental problems caused by extensive industrial size corn farming in Iowa and throughout the Corn Belt.

    The culprit here isn't manure; it is synthetic nitrogen that is over applied to the fields where some evaporates into the atmosphere where it comes back down hundreds of miles away as acid rain. 

    Some seeps into the water table where it pollutes wells, forcing people to install reverse osmosis filtration systems in their homes just to get a drink of clean water.  The rest of it runs off the fields into streams, then to tributaries, then to rivers where it causes algae blooms that deplete oxygen levels in the water resulting in massive fish kills and polluting the tap water of major metropolitan areas. 

    The story is the same wherever these massive animal factories spring up from the Delmarva peninsula to Iowa and Missouri, south to the Carolina's, north to Minnesota and Wisconsin and across the country to the produce fields of southern California and north to Washington state.  No area of the country is safe from the environmental problems stemming from this plague of pollution.


    Still focusing on the first question; how did environmental problems get so bad?  One aspect that doesn't get enough attention is the politics of greed, money, power and big business. 

    Industrial farm pollution got so bad because the polluters had a lot of protection in the form of local, state and federal politicians and regulatory agencies that were more prone to protect big business than to protect the consumers and communities that were being damaged.  This was the main driver in the situations cited above as documented in the featured books.

    In some cases, elected local and state representatives and senators were owners or partners in the animal factory business and complicit in the resulting environmental problems.  They were financially motivated to pass laws that either exempted factory farms from regulation or protected them from prosecution. 

    If the USDA, EPA and FDA had been doing their job early on, the environmental problems of unmanaged waste never would have grown to the extent that it did.  A case in point is the Federal Water Pollution control Amendments of 1972, better known as the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Having a law is one thing but enforcing it is often something else.
    Unfortunately, visible, positive results took years of litigation and truckloads of money.  The situation has improved in locales where public awareness of health issues from animal waste, and the threat of scandal spilling onto elected officials who had chosen to ignore, or worse, protect the offenders became known. 

    Part of the problem was that the courts continued to take the position that animal factories were farms and not industry.  Industry was regulated to a higher standard thus agriculture and big animal factories got a pass by being able to avoid being viewed as industries.  Thankfully this is changing.

    Continuing on, we will consider the vast volume of manure produced by the animal factories and then examine the contribution of various types of CAFOs to our environmental problems.

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    In Summary

    An overview of the main issues in factory farming was presented here and in the ensuing pages, specific problems will be covered in greater detail.  One thing certain is that incredible amounts of waste with no environmentally safe disposal facilities are what the CAFOs have brought us. 

    The key word is "safe" since this is not a benign type of manure we are talking about; it is thoroughly contaminated with a dangerous mix of heavy metals, including arsenic and mercury, animal hormones, antibiotics and an assortment of bacterial pathogens. 

    Some of these pathogens are new to the environment, being mutated varieties of old, well known bacteria and viruses, and may have the ability to make the jump from animal to human by several vectors; airborne, waterborne, insect borne or food borne. 

    More on the effects on human health caused by factory farming  environmental problems is covered in the section on human impacts of factory farming.


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    Manure, Factory Farmings Main Product
    CAFO Introduction and Overview
    Animal Factory Lead In
    Hog Factory Manure; Very Bad Stuff
    Chicken Factory Manure; Not Suitable for Food Crops
    Industrial Fish Farming: Polluters of the Seas