CAFO: Plenty Of Animals, Plenty Of Harmful Effects

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April 15, 2019

This article originally appeared in Garden Culture Magazine UK27 and US25.


One of the primary ways that modern agriculture has become compromised is a general lack of attention towards balance and diversity. Rather than rely on the wisdom of Mother Nature to produce her abundance, our efforts involve the faulty logic of increased yields at all costs and the use of artificial methods that push and disturb to the point of degeneration in an attempt to grow living systems.

What Is a CAFO?

This reality is taken to the extreme in CAFO’s, or “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation”. The term CAFO is often used loosely to describe any factory animal farm, but it actually has a designation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a farm with over 1000 “animal units”, or an animal equivalent of 1000 pounds live weight, that is raised in confinement for over 45 days a year. CAFO is also defined as an animal farm that discharges manure or wastewater into a natural or man-made ditch, stream or other waterways, regardless of size.

In other words, rather than raising animals in a field on a natural diet, most livestock in the United States is fed an unnatural diet, kept alive using heavy doses of toxic rescue chemistry, and kept mostly in confinement. This is the process by which most meat in the United States is produced. Beyond the moral implications of such an approach, it produces untold contamination in the environment, in our food system, and in the people who eat it.  

Environmental Impact

I live in Wilmington, a historic port city at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in southeastern North Carolina. The Cape Fear is 202 miles long with a watershed covering over 9,100 square miles across eastern North Carolina, flowing right through downtown Wilmington and directly into the Atlantic Ocean. The river is home to countless diversity of organisms and ecosystems, truly an invaluable natural resource for the citizens of North Carolina, but despite its beauty, the Cape Fear is one of the top 50 most polluted rivers in the United States.

Wilmington has massive water quality issues. We made headline news in 2014 when Duke Energy spilled toxic coal ash into the Dan River, a tributary of the Cape Fear. We experienced another coal ash spill recently from the devastating flooding from Hurricane Florence that dumped eight months of rain on us in three days.

Mass chicken slaughter house

We were again in the news in late 2017 for the discovery of a contaminant called GenX in our drinking water system. GenX is in the category of chemicals known as PFAS, or poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. GenX is used in the manufacturing of fluoropolymers such as Teflon and produced by Chemours, a DuPont spinoff created to deflect potential liability. Watch the documentary The Devil We Know for more on this emerging threat and the history of litigation against PFAS manufacturers. There are thousands of these substances showing up in water systems everywhere, and we know very little about them.

But the most harmful pollutant we face here in regards to water quality is the waste stream generated by industrial animal agriculture. North Carolina ranks first in the nation in egg production, second in hog and turkey production, and fourth in production of broiler chickens, with all sectors increasing year after year. There are more pigs than people in North Carolina. And similar to commercial vegetable and commodity farms, the animal agriculture industry is consolidating at a rapid pace. According to the USDA, it took one million farms to house 57 million pigs in 1966; by the year 2001, it took only 80,000 farms to accommodate the same number.

This boom in production brings economic benefits, but also dire environmental consequences. The animals produce mind-boggling amounts of waste every year, all of which is virtually unregulated primarily due to the multi-billion-dollar influence of industry over our State government. An analysis by Environmental Working Group shows that wet waste in North Carolina’s industrial agricultural operations produces almost 10 billion gallons of fecal waste yearly, enough to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

There are now over 10 million hogs, over 16 million turkeys, and 300 million chickens produced annually in the Cape Fear River Basin. Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette says that the hog waste volume alone represents a human waste equivalent of 60 million people being crammed into southeastern North Carolina east of Interstate 95. That is more than six times the population of New York City! With human waste, we use sewage treatment facilities, but for some reason we allow animal waste to be administered directly into the environment completely unprocessed.  

According to our local watchdog group, Cape Fear River Watch, not only does the Cape Fear River Basin have the highest density of CAFO’s of any place on planet Earth, but in North Carolina alone there are 170 CAFO’s located within the 100-year floodplain. Many more were constructed in the so-called 1,000-year and 500-year flood plains that were both breached in separate weather events over the last two years.  

Dana Sargent of Cape Fear River Watch said it best, “While industrial pollution has been seeping into our waterways for years, Hurricane Florence shined a dramatic, national spotlight on how industry, left unchecked, devastates our water quality, and with it, our environment, our economy, our public health and our way of life.”

Concentrated animal waste is highly toxic, so there are limits to the amount of animal waste that can be sprayed onto crop fields over time. The excess is stored in unlined open cesspools called “manure lagoons” that receive little to no oversight. The NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) checks facilities once per year by reviewing logs, self-reported by the industry producer, who is contracted to manage the waste by the large industrial companies like Prestige Farms or Smithfield Foods.  

Smithfield Foods is the largest pork producer in the world and owns much of the hogs in North Carolina. One of their major packaging plants is located right along the banks of the Cape Fear River where they slaughter around 30,000 hogs every day. In 2013, a Chinese company, WH Group, bought Smithfield for nearly $5 billion and has developed a scheme of polluting our environment and shipping the pork overseas. Not long ago there was an article in Rolling Stone titled, “Why is China Treating NC Like the Developing World?”

WH Group said in its 2017 annual financial statement that its American operations account for about 60% of its overall revenue and close to half its profits. The CAFO operations are typically situated in low-income, minority neighborhoods along the floodplain taking advantage of cheap property value and a relative inability of low-income homeowners to push back on the degenerative farming methods being practiced. This isn’t by accident, there is a strong lobby towards the NC legislature for these farms to continue to take economic advantage of the citizens of North Carolina, but the tides are turning.

Legal Issues

For the first time, in 2018 Smithfield lost three hog nuisance cases where plaintiffs argued that their quality of life was hindered due to odors from neighboring CAFO’s. The most recent lawsuit was for over $470 million, and there are many behind it. As published in the Washington Times, Michael Kaeske, a Dallas, Texas-based lawyer representing the citizens burdened by the industrial farms, told jurors, “They (industry) know there’s a problem. They know there’s a fix. They willfully choose to do nothing about it. We’ve been treating waste as a society for hundreds of years. There are superior technologies.”

Smithfield’s response has been to publish a statement that they intend to follow the lead of states like Missouri and cap manure lagoons to limit airborne environmental exposure and capture the methane produced as a source of energy. While this sounds like a welcome step forward, it does not address the problem of managing the actual animal waste. Are we merely going to contain the problem and continue to distribute it raw into the environment?

The CAFO Model Is Spreading

The CAFO farming model was born in the United States but is now spreading around the globe. Reports of CAFO’s in Asia and Australia are now common. Nearly every county in England has at least one industrial-scale livestock farm, with an estimated 800 US-style mega-farms operating across the UK. The headline of an article in The Guardian said it best – “Rise of mega farms: how the US model of intensive farming is invading the world”.

The real solution is to diversify and change our agriculture to more regenerative practices, but there are stop-gap solutions that can upcycle the problem even without adopting more conscious and progressive agricultural methods. One method that I am working on locally is seeding microbe packages into biochar and creating simple biofilters to mitigate the problem at the source. The quality of biochar is critical, but we have already generated data to prove that it can handle the scale of the problem if implemented correctly.

As is often the case in the agricultural space, these sorts of solutions, no matter how obvious they may seem to test and implement, involve a change in mindset and a measured and truly holistic approach. While this may be a challenging landscape for hungry human populations and an entrenched global industry to navigate, the key is a healthy incentive. The greatest tool we have to change agriculture for the better is transparency and buying power, as Big Ag can only afford to pollute the public if we continue to eat what they grow. Food for thought!

Featured image courtesy of Sentient Media.

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Evan Folds

President at Be Agriculture
Evan Folds is a regenerative agricultural consultant with a background across every facet of the farming and gardening spectrum. He has founded and operated many businesses over the years - including a retail hydroponics store he operated for over 14 years, a wholesale company that formulated beyond organic products and vortex-style compost tea brewers, an organic lawn care company, and a commercial organic wheatgrass growing operation.

He now works as a consultant in his new project Be Agriculture where he helps new and seasoned growers take their agronomy to the next level. What we think, we grow!
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