The environmental costs of CAFO production have been well-documented. Manure spills and leakages have contaminated waterways, killing fish and fouling fisheries. Still, environmental laws governing CAFO pollution are still not fully enforced in many states and regions of the country and the industry continually lobbies for less regulation.
Industrial Food Benefits the Environment and Wildlife
Even though industrial animal feeding operations are intensively concentrated, their impacts radiate across the entire landscape, with devastating effects on surrounding ecosystems and wildlife. Throughout the world, hundreds of millions of acres of grasslands, wetlands, and forestlands have been converted to produce feed for confined livestock. Far from benefiting the environment and wildlife, global-scale industrial animal food production poses one of the most dire threats to the natural world.
The demand for industrial feeds, primarily corn and soybeans, has decimated biodiversity in the midwestern United States, plowing up grasslands, draining and replumbing wetlands and stream systems, and pushing many native plant and animal species to the verge of extinction. Nutrient runoff from midwestern feed grain fields each year flows through the Mississippi River drainage and into the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to an 8,000-square-mile oxygen-starved dead zone that smothers sea life.
An Enormous Environmental Footprint The massive environmental footprint of industrial animal food production includes far more than the impact of factory farms. In the United States, alone, roughly two-thirds of public, private, and tribal lands are used for agriculture, either in grazing, haying, or row cropping—much of that to grow livestock feed.1 Growers annually apply billions of pounds of chemical fertilizer and tens of millions of pounds of pesticides to those fields, contributing to soil erosion, water pollution problems, and wildlife habitat destruction. Each year in the United States, some 670 million birds are exposed to pesticides, with 10 percent dying from the exposure.2
This is not just a North American issue. For the past ten years, the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon has been conversion of rainforest to industrial soybean plantations—primarily for CAFO production in Brazil or for export to industrial animal operations in China and Europe. But rainforest destruction for feed crop and pasture conversion is occurring at an even faster pace in other Latin American countries.3 Nearly 60 percent of the world’s freshwater resources are diverted for agriculture, of which at least a third goes to food animal production.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s livestock contribute 18 percent of all annual greenhouse gas emissions. But a recent report from the World Watch Institute estimates that the livestock sector could be responsible for as much as 50 percent of all climate-changing emissions—making it the most critical influential factor in global warming.4
Rivers of Waste Livestock-induced water pollution is increasingly a global problem with the huge volumes of contaminated waste produced wherever food animals are raised, milked, and slaughtered. This waste can become fugitive, leaching from overapplication on farmland, overflowing or leaking from lagoons and holding ponds, volatilizing in the atmosphere, and devastating wildlife habitats and the rest of the environment. Hog, chicken, and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and significantly contaminated groundwater in 17 states, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report.5 The results of large spills can be catastrophic. In August 2005, for example, a lagoon collapsed at a western New York dairy, sending 3 million gallons of waste into the Black River. As many as 250,000 fish were killed, and residents of Watertown had to suspend their use of the river as a water supply and recreation area.6
Waste can also contain persistent substances that affect wildlife. Cattle, for example, can be given ear implants that provide a slow release of trenbolone, an anabolic steroid that causes cattle to bulk up. But not all the trenbolone is metabolized. A German study showed that 10 percent of the steroid passed right through the animals.7 Water sampled downstream from a Nebraska feedlot revealed steroid levels four times as high as the water taken upstream. Male fathead minnows living in that downstream area exhibited low testosterone levels and undersized heads.8
“Damage Control” The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 to eradicate and control wildlife considered detrimental to the country’s western ranching industry. In 1997, under pressure from advocates for wildlife, the federal government gave the ADC both a new name— Wildlife Services—and a new motto—“Living with Wildlife.”9 To protect livestock from predators, an estimated 100,000 coyotes, bobcats, bears, wolves, and mountain lions are killed each year by USDA’s Wildlife Services.10 Tragically, most of the cattle raised for food production on ranches in the western United States eventually end their days in crowded, feces-encrusted feedlots.
Ocean Impacts The oceans have simultaneously become dumping grounds for agricultural wastes and food sources for cattle rations. Dead zones, caused when nutrients such as fertilizers from feed production and animal wastes overwhelm an aquatic environment, are multiplying around the world at a rapid pace. Also alarming is the amount of wild fish that is currently fed to confinement animals. Consider that an estimated 17 percent of the global wild fish catch goes to feed the world’s chickens and hogs.
The great challenge of this century will be to develop food production systems that meet the needs of the human population and that accommodate and even benefit from wild nature and a healthy environment.
1. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, NRCS-RID, Acres of Cropland, 1997 (National Resource Inventory, 1997); ibid., Acres of Non-Federal Grazing Land, 1997 (National Resource Inventory, 1997); U.S. Dept. of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 15.034 Agriculture on Indian Lands (Catalog of Domestic Assistance, 2002); U.S. Dept. of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Working Together for the Health of America’s Public Lands, Annual Report, 1997; U.S. Forest Service, Forest Service Acres Grazed in All or Parts of Fifteen Western States (AZ, CA, CO, ID, KS, MT, ND, NE, NV, NM, OR, SD, UT, WA, WY), Rangeland Management: Profile of the Forest Service’s Grazing Allotments and Permittees, U.S. GAO Public Lands Grazing Report RCED-93-141FS (Washington, DC: U.S. GAO, 1993).
2. Ted Williams, “Silent Scourge: Legally Used Pesticides Are Killing Tens of Millions of America’s Birds,” Journal of Pesticide Reform 17, no. 1 (Spring 1997).
3. James McWilliams, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (New York: Little, Brown, 2009), 136.
4. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change: What If the Key Actors in Climate Change Are . . . Cows, Pigs, and Chickens?” World Watch (November/December 2009), 10–19.
5. U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Unified National Strategy for Animal Feeding Operations,” draft, September 11, 1998.
6. Food and Water Watch, Turning Farms into Factories: How the Concentration of Animal Agriculture Threatens Human Health, the Environment, and Rural Communities (Washington, DC: Food and Water Watch, 2007), 3.
7. Jeff Donn, Martha Mendoza, and Justin Pritchard, “AP Probe Finds Drugs in Drinking Water,” SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle), March 10, 2008.
9. John Robbins, FoodRevolution.org, “What About Grass-Fed Beef?” The Food Revolution.
10. Predator Conservation Alliance, Wildlife “Services”? A Presentation and Analysis of the USDA Wildlife Services Program’s Expenditures and Kill Figures for Fiscal Year 1999 (Predator Conservation Alliance, 2001).
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