CAFOs: A farm is not a factory

Much shocked outrage was voiced in Wisconsin after a recent undercover video taken at a dairy factory farm by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals was made public. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation issued a statement saying the animal cruelty shown on the video was “reprehensible and disgusting. The video is hard to watch for those whose lives are devoted to caring for cattle. Obviously there is no place for this sort of behavior on farms.” Obviously. But when will the WFBF morally and ecologically distinguish CAFOs from farms?

For isn’t it also obvious that a “factory farm” is no longer a real farm, a place where land and animals are nurtured and cared for as integral parts of a healthy, sustainable ecosystem? And isn’t it also rather obvious that such reprehensible behavior is far more likely to occur on huge factory farms where animals are mere numbers and units? For while it’s true that farmed animals must occasionally be treated with “rough handling” that the general public misunderstands, intentional animal abuse on CAFOs appears to be not at all uncommon, based on video evidence, extensive research and a book and website called “CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories.” Actually, one could argue that simply confining such a large number of animals in such small spaces is inherently abusive to animals and land.

English: Description: Concentrated animal feed...
English: Description: Concentrated animal feeding operation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The dairy farm on which the latest documented abuse occurred is a factory farm or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) which, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, is one of the largest dairy facilities in Wisconsin, holding some 8,000 cows and milking about 2,500. There are now over 230 CAFO’s in the state, defined as an industrial farm production facility holding at least 700 or so cows or twice as many pigs or upwards of 100,000 chickens in huge barns or outdoor feedlots. Such “farms” are considered more efficient and profitable than smaller farms, and require less land area than traditional farms to produce a whole lot of cheap food.

But there is no “free lunch” with all this bigness and efficiency; as with any large industrial system, what we make in production we lose in care, quality and health. (We also lose small farms that cannot compete in the purely revenue-reckoning system of government-subsidized capitalism we like to call the “free market.”) Confining livestock and poultry in such large numbers promotes disease which promotes the heavy use of antibiotics, (even when no disease is apparent) which may have consequences for human health. All the many tons of collected manure must go somewhere, and that somewhere is too often into streams, lakes and underground aquifers, as well as into the surrounding air as toxic gases and putrid smells. The sheer numbers of animals and the maximizing of profit also create an environment where the idea of farm animals as fellow creatures deserving of humane respect is hard or impossible to apply. Add to this a serious funding and manpower shortage in the DNR to monitor and enforce rather weak federal and state regulations for CAFO’s, and we in Wisconsin should not be surprised by the harm factory farming is causing to animals, water and the people who work in them and live near them.

Nor do we lack for research and policy direction. In 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Production issued a report after many hours of expert testimony, gathering of academic research, and visits to factory farms across the nation.  The report recommended some rather mild reforms, including to end use of antibiotics for healthy livestock; increase regulation of factory farms; phase out “intensive confinement”, whereby animals can move little or not at all; end forced feeding and stopping of feeding; remove the monopoly trend in agribusiness by enforcing or amending anti-trust laws. The Sierra Club, in contrast, has called for a ban on all new and expanded factory farms.

And what has been done to address these issues since the 2008 report? Absolutely nothing. In fact, things have gotten worse, says the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future which announced results in October of an analysis of the impact of the Pew Commission report. Here’s how Robert S. Lawrence, director of the CLF, summed up the impact of the report:

“There has been an appalling lack of progress. The failure to act by the USDA and FDA, the lack of action or concern by the Congress, and continued intransigence of the animal agriculture industry have made all of our problems worse.”

So isn’t time for all of us, at the state and federal levels, to stop defending the indefensible? The least we can do is to properly fund DNR oversight and strictly regulate how farm animals are to be treated and force CAFOs to treat their waste. And government should stop subsidizing such abuse. Personally, I’d prefer a state or federal ban on all  CAFOs and more government subsidies for small farms and sustainable rural developmentIn the meantime, consumers can help by looking for grass-fed and free range meat from small farms.

Note: See a recent Journal Sentinel report on “megafarms” in Wisconsin, as well as a JS editorial (first link) below.

UPDATE: See also Cap Times columnist Joel McNally’s piece on CAFOs.

UPDATE (12/31): Fortunately, Wisconsin currently has no “ag gag” law. Will this now change?

UPDATE (12/31): For one WI dairy farmer’s take on the issue of the above mentioned cow abuse incident, see this post by “Dairy Carrie.”

Farmer plowing in Fahrenwalde, Mecklenburg-Vor...
Farmer plowing in Fahrenwalde, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany (Photo credit: Ralf Roletschek via Wikipedia)

2 responses to “CAFOs: A farm is not a factory”

  1. Great post. CAFOs are one of the things I hate most about the current food system. People need to be more connected to the food we eat, only then will society as a whole begin to truly care about it.

    Most people neglect to even think about the fact that meat comes from a living animal.


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