Intensive Livestock Operations in Industrial Agriculture: the True Cost of “Cheap Food” in North America.

As the world’s population continues to grow at an ever increasing rate, we are forced to find more efficient ways to produce sufficient quantities of food in order to satisfy consumer demand. Although there are several alternatives, the most convenient solution seems to be the development of industrial production agriculture, which results in the farming practices of confined animal feeding. Intensive livestock operations or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are farms in which anywhere from several hundred to several thousand animals are being raised in tremendously condensed spaces for the commercial production of poultry, meat and dairy.

The Swiss College of Agriculture defines “industrial systems [as having] livestock densities larger than 10 livestock units per hectare, and they depend primarily on outside supplies of feed, energy, and other inputs, as in confined animal feeding operations”(Menzi. Oenema. Shipin. Gerber. Robinson. Franceshini.). Although CAFOs are currently the most cost-effective and efficient way to produce animal products, there are multiple adverse effects associated with these production practices.

Tons of manure, waste, and other by-products generated from intensive livestock operations pollute the air, soil, and water in surrounding areas due to agricultural run-off. CAFOs pose a serious threat to the environment from water and air pollution, which in turn is potentially harmful to the wellbeing of humans. Nevertheless, supporters of modern industrial agricultural production practices claim that the economic benefits of theses farming practices currently outweigh the potential consequences to the environment and society.

Although modern industrial agricultural practices may have a few problems, there are a multitude of advantages that are commonly overlooked when discussing the effects of these production techniques. After all, the development of industrial agriculture was the solution to a problem before it was ever the problem. When demand for cheap food began to grow substantially in the mid twentieth century, farmers began to use production techniques such as intensive livestock operations to supply this increased demand.

In addition to increased production quantities, intensive livestock operations have significantly lowered food prices by allowing farms to enjoy lower production costs, greater production efficiency and increased consistency and control over product output due to standardization.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “the benefits of industrial agriculture have been cheap food; a release of labor from agricultural activities for employment in other sectors; large, profitable chemical and agricultural industries; and increased export markets.”

It is difficult to ignore the massive economic contributions indirectly related to intensive livestock operations as well. For example, “the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that nontherapeutic animal agricultural use (drugs given to animals even when they are not sick) accounts for 70 percent of total antibiotic consumption in the United States” (Sayre).

The excess profits these pharmaceutical companies earn each year as a result of confined animal feeding operations enables new business investments, which in turn creates new jobs. Nevertheless, the system is not perfect and several problems do exist with industrial production agriculture.

However, the revenues generated by these industrial production practices account for a significant portion of US GDP and are an integral part of the economy. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “agricultural products make up 10 percent of all exported US merchandise.” It would simply be too detrimental to global and domestic food supplies as well as the economies associated with each to suddenly discontinue the use of industrial farming practices.

Industrial livestock operations are widely scrutinized, and rightly so. Although the monetary production gains from industrial livestock operations are substantial, there are countless environmental and social costs associated with these production practices. Pollution from animal waste is the most immense problem concerning CAFOs.

John Cotter of the Canadian Press states that, “Canadian livestock produced 164 billion kilograms of manure in 2001, enough to fill Toronto’s Sky Dome stadium twice a week.” There is simply too much manure in too small a space to be able to economically dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way.

The inability to properly dispose of all the tons of animal waste produced results in farmland around industrial livestock operations to become overly saturated with excrement, which leads to agricultural run-off; polluting streams and rivers. Polluted water from agricultural runoff has tested positive for “E. coli from farm animal manure [and] was responsible for killing seven people and making 2,300 others ill in the rural Ontario community of Walkerton in May of 2000”(Cotter).

Antibiotics used in intensive livestock operations may contaminate the water supply as well; causing a “rapid rise of antibiotic-resistant microbes, an inevitable consequence of the widespread use of antibiotics as feed additives in industrial livestock operations” (Sayre). Air pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations is of growing concern as well, “they emit methane gas, a factor in global climate change, and hydrogen sulfide, which causes flulike symptoms in humans and, at high levels, leads to brain damage”(EH Update).

Although there are numerous additional consequences resulting from industrial livestock operations, water and air pollution have the greatest impact on human safety and the environment. The adverse social and environmental costs of intensive livestock operations must be taken into consideration when determining the true cost of “cheap food.”

Although substantial conflicts arise between the two opposing views on CAFOs in industrial production agriculture, neither side can deny the resulting economic benefits nor the potential environmental and societal hazards related to these production practices. The core discrepancy between the two outlooks lies within the cost/benefit analysis of industrial farming practices.

Supporters of industrial agriculture and intensive livestock operations claim that the economic benefits gained through these efficient production techniques; such as increased output, lower production costs, and profits to input suppliers significantly outweigh the latent environmental and societal dangers associated with these production practices. On the other hand, opposing parties maintain that the water, air, and soil pollution caused by industrial livestock operations along with the resulting detrimental consequences to society and the environment are far greater than the economic benefits provided by these production practices.

Although I am an avid believer in the free market and the theory that public resources such as water and air should be shared, there is much needed regulation in industrial livestock farming practices. These factory farms are extremely unhealthy: not only for consumers of the products produced, but for society as a whole.

The farming practices related to concentrated animal feeding operations are socially, environmentally, and economically unsustainable in the long run. Antibiotic resistance, the creation of new pathogens as well as water and air pollution will have detrimental effects on society. Nevertheless, a healthy domestic and global economy is critical to the well being of the US and world populations.

It would be impossible to simply stop or ban industrial agricultural practices without causing a huge disruption in both domestic and global food supply, as well as the economies associated with each. If we are serious about cleaning up production agriculture, “government policies such as zoning regulations and taxes can discourage large concentrations of intensive production”(Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations).

Other policy decisions include, “eliminating subsidies, adjusting taxes and providing incentives for investing in technology to reduce pollution could reduce the environmental damage caused by industrial livestock production” (Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations). Above all, it is imperative that we implement policy decisions that aim to reduce industrial agricultural practices by limiting government subsidies and transfer payments, in addition to increasing the benefits farm income programs provide to farmers who practice sustainable forms of agriculture.

It is somewhat difficult to truly analyze the costs and benefits related to CAFOs and industrial agricultural practices because many of the consequences cannot be quantified. However, we must remember that these industrial farming practices were adopted in order to increase output to meet the growing demand for agricultural products. Without the use of industrial farming, it would be nearly impossible to economically supply the global population with sufficient quantities of food. In addition, these farming practices support numerous other business ventures that allow other sectors of the economy to grow.

Nevertheless, these industrial agricultural practices pose serious threats to the environment and society due to the pollution they produce. Although it is unreasonable to suggest that these farming practices should be prohibited, steps can be made toward reducing agricultural pollution by implementing effective and economical policy decisions, that support sustainable agriculture.

Works CitedCotter, John. “Rein in factory farms, group tells Ottawa; Environmentalists’ report urges federal; regulation of large-scale manure dumping.” Canadian Press (2002): Lexus Nexus. 17 Sep. 2011. “EH Update; Water Fluoridation Debate.” Journal of Environmental Health. Issue 65.3 (2002); Vol. 52. pgs 1-7. Academic Search Complete.EBSCO.Web. 17 Sep. 2011. (No author listed) “Environment; Industrial Livestock Production Near Cities Considered Damaging.”Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Africa News. (2006); LexusNexus. 17 Sep. 2011.

Sayre, Laura. “The Hidden Link Between Factory Farms and Human Illness.” Mother Earth News 232 (2009): 76-83. Academic Search Complete.EBSCO.Web. 17 Sep. 2011. Swiss College of Agriculture, Menzi, H.; Oenema, O.; Burton, C.; Shipin, O.; Gerber, P.; Robinson, T.;Franceschini, G. “Impacts of intensive livestock production and manure management on the environment.” Livestock in a changing landscape, Volume 1: drivers, consequences and responses. 2010 pp. 139-163. ISBN: 978-1-59726-671-0. Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The Costs and Benefits of Industrial Agriculture.”Sustainable Agriculture—A New Vision.1997.