Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is an animal feeding operation (AFO) with more than 1,000 animals confined for more than 45 days in a year. What could go wrong with confining that many cows, chickens, pigs?
Much can go wrong when you put that many animals together and confine them, and many make noise about the environmental effects of CAFOs. Over 230 climate, environmental justice, food justice, sustainable agriculture, animal welfare, and social justice organizations sent a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer to remove portions of the Build Back Better Act (BBBA) that provide funding for CAFOs.
Factory farms “receive immense financial support through government subsidies and enjoy a lack of regulatory oversight,” the letter stated. Factory farms and CAFOs cause pollution and threaten public health.
“The Build Back Better Act was meant to be a historic investment in the fight against the climate crisis, which is why Congress shouldn’t support climate-destroying factory farms,” said Jason Davidson, Senior Food and Agriculture Campaigner with Friends of the Earth, one of the organizations that signed the letter. “Congress should invest in family farmers that build healthy soils to help sequester carbon, not provide handouts to factory farms that are the leading emitter of climate-warming methane and perpetuate environmental racism.”
The environmental and health effects of CAFOs
The vast volumes of manure produced are the most pressing environmental problem with CAFOs. Manure produces contaminants that pollute groundwater, surface water, and air while contributing to climate change. A CAFO with 800,000 pigs can produce over 1.6 million tons of waste annually, one and a half times more than the annual sanitary waste produced by Philadelphia. While sewage treatment of human waste is required, it is not required for livestock waste.
Nitrates in manure can contaminate groundwater. Infants exposed to nitrates can develop a condition called methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome.” Babies are not the only ones harmed by exposure to nitrates. Nitrate exposure in adults is linked to cancer and thyroid disease.
Nitrate contamination is the largest source of well closures in California. According to a report by Clean Water Center, contamination of groundwater in California tends to affect communities with larger populations of Latinos and renters. Nitrate contamination of groundwater affects communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Groundwater accounts for nearly 90 percent of drinking water for the Valley’s residents. Tests of Valley wells found that 97 percent of them throughout the Valley had groundwater contamination.
The largest source of surface water contamination in the U.S. is from the agriculture sector, including CAFOs. Contamination of surface water from CAFOs can cause ammonia and nitrates to build up. Ammonia contamination results in oxygen depletion from water, which can kill aquatic life. Ammonia can convert into nitrates which can make water inhabitable to aquatic life. Build up of ammonia and nitrates causes algal blooms, worsening environmental problems in surface water.
CAFOs worsen air quality in the areas surrounding them. They produce both gaseous and particulate air emissions. The decomposition of manure is the leading cause of gaseous emissions, while the movement of animals is the main cause of particulate emissions. A 2021 study found that agriculture is a significant contributor to air pollution and the most prominent environmental risk factor for mortality in the U.S. Agricultural production in the U.S. accounts for 17,900 annual air-quality-related deaths.
CAFOs emit greenhouse gases. Livestock operations account for over seven percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Stored manure at CAFOs contributes to the production of greenhouse gases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CAFOs usually store their excess manure in lagoons or pits, exacerbating methane production.
It’s time for government oversight of CAFOs
As long as livestock production and meat and dairy consumption continue to increase in the U.S., greenhouse gas emissions from CAFOs will continue to grow. The majority of meat and dairy consumed by Americans comes from CAFOs. A 2019 survey found that 57 percent of Americans favor greater government oversight of CAFOs and 43 percent favor a national ban on creating new CAFOs. Only 38 percent of those polled oppose a ban.
Since most Americans favor more oversight of CAFOs, perhaps the Biden administration will listen and increase regulation. The health of the American people depends on it.
Image credit: Waterkeeper Alliance, courtesy Flickr