Confined Animal Feeding Operations
At one time a farm would keep a variety of livestock so the family could vary its diet and enjoy the secondary benefits and cash income that the menagerie offered. This however has been characterized by former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz as the age of “get big or get out”. Today a hog farmer with a thousand hogs is a small operator. Why is this? Is it economics of scale or is it an industry driven government policy? Consider what has happened to the markets the old time farmer had for his produce. Milk, eggs where sold to a local market. Local butchers could either buy livestock or be paid to butcher and package meat. Many of these markets no longer exist. Milk is an example of a product so heavily regulated by health laws that individuals and even small producers have gone out of business. Health requirements have also had an affect on meat packers.
In the hog and chicken markets in particular another phenomena has taken over. Big producers have found that they can hire out the raising of the livestock. This benefits them in several ways and this is how it works in the poultry business.
- A farmer borrows money to build a chicken coop.
- He signs a contract to raise chickens with say Tyson.
- Tyson delivers hatchlings and makes regular deliveries of feed for the next 8 to 12 weeks.
- Tyson picks up the fryers.
- The farmer doesn’t own the chickens; he only owns the manure and the dead birds.
- He is paid for the weight gain of the birds, plus he gets a premium if his birds weigh more and die less than his neighbors’ birds.
Why does Tyson like this arrangement? Because they completely control raising the birds but are not responsible for the waste. Why would a farmer borrow money to get in this business? Because he can’t get inside a processing plant if he is not under contract with a Tyson. He could raise chickens all year but could not sell them because the market is closed to him. Essentially he is prisoner on his own farm, held by his debt and his contract while he owns nothing and is working for the corporation. In the end he has the cash, the manure, the dead carcasses and another shipment of chicks. The fact that the disposal costs doesn’t affect the company is not lost on them. They don’t want that responsibility and it is harder to pursue a hundred poor farmers for compliance with clean water regulations than one wealthy company.
Confined animal feeding, whether it is chickens, pigs or cattle, presents several problems to the environment and to the consumer. First, crowding the animals into a small area and feeding them intensively to gain weight produces huge amounts of animal waste. It also produces an environment for disease. To combat the diseases that thrive here the animals are feed high levels of antibiotic. To increase weight gain and shorten the time it takes to produce the meat, the animals are fed growth hormones, some of which are genetically modified organisms, to make them gain faster.
In conventional farming, the animals manure is the way the farm gives health back to the land to replace what the crops have taken out. In these intense operations, even the largest land owners don’t have enough land for the volume of manure on hand. The land can only absorb so much nitrogen rich effluent, the rest runs off into creeks and lakes, where it usually feeds algae, until the algae uses up all the available dissolved oxygen and the fish die leaving green soupy water, where once clear streams flowed chock full of fish, crawdads, mussels, insects and water plants.
The Sierra Club is actively opposing CAFO’s on two fronts. First, we support the active enforcement of existing water quality standards for point source pollution and oppose building new factory farms where the watershed will be endangered. Second, we are pushing legislation implementing Integrator Liability, which would make the corporation responsible for the pollution produced by its livestock. Another effective way to oppose CAFO’s is by not consuming their product. Range feed chicken and cattle are becoming more available. Ask your grocer for range fed meat products. If you can’t find them, check the sources on this page or this page.