In the run-up to Food Day this week, we’re highlighting the troubling growth of America’s factory farms — otherwise known as ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations’ (CAFOs) — and what one farmer and activist is doing about it.
CAFOs are large-scale feedlots where up to one million livestock such as chicken, cattle and pigs are confined for their entire lives, with dire consequences for public health and the environment, not to mention the welfare of the animals themselves. These produce more than just the majority of the meat, milk and eggs consumed in the U.S. — they breed disease, misery and pollution. In fact, every day, America’s factory farms produce enough waste to fill the Empire State Building.
Earlier this year, our partner organization Food & Water Watch released its latest Factory Farm Map and released a companion report, Factory Farm Nation. The Factory Farm Map uses U.S. Department of Agriculture census data dating as far back as 1997 to show how factory farms are getting larger—at the expense of the public, as well as small and medium sized farmers. Just between 2002 and 2012, the total number of animals on the largest factory farms increased by 20 percent.
The larger factory farms get, the more problems they create. One of these problems? Huge amounts of animal waste.
Waste With No Borders
If CAFOs are so common, why aren’t we seeing — or even smelling(!) — the effects of these farms? The reality is that factory farms are usually set away from the public eye, and are hidden away due to ag gag laws that are intended to obscure the terrible conditions on factory farms. Unlike sewage produced in cities, the waste on factory farms does not undergo any treatment.
With nowhere to put this waste, it’s stored in giant pits or lagoons, and then eventually spread on fields as fertilizer, often in amounts that far exceed what the land can absorb or crops need to grow. It’s also important to note that manure from these operations contains nitrogen, phosphorus and bacteria that can endanger the environment and public health. Nobody wants this stuff anywhere near their drinking water, but that’s often where it ends up.
Both the water and air pollution produced by these factory farms are problems that farmer and Goldman Prize winner Lynn Henning (2010, USA) is only too familiar with:
“Air pollution does not know boundaries between rural and urban areas. The over 160 toxic gases that are emitted from factory farms — gases that are toxic not only for the animals, but also for people working in the facility and those unlucky enough to be neighbors of these operations.”
For over 15 years Henning has been tirelessly working to expose the dirty practice of factory farming. With her husband, she farms 300-acres of corn and soybeans in Lenawee County, Michigan all situated within 10 miles of 12 CAFOs. Her mother-in-law and father-in-law, both in their 80s, live within 1000 feet of a CAFO, and both were diagnosed with hydrogen sulfide poisoning. After a runoff polluted a State park lake, the Hennings were falsely blamed as whistle blowers — an accusation that turned her into a lifelong activist against the practice.
Digging Up The Dirt
Henning began by organizing concerned neighbors to monitor CAFO pollution spills. By taking pictures of water meters and taking water samples, it gave enforcement agencies the evidence to close down CAFOs that were in violation of environmental standards. Her data collection made it to the State department of Environmental Quality, which in turn issued citations to local CAFOs for their polluting practices.
The risks she took to do so were significant and Henning suffered several attempts at intimidation and harassment: Her truck was repeatedly run off the road as she collected water samples and gunfire shattered a window at her family member’s house. The very act of collecting information on CAFOs puts her in violation of the same ‘ag gag law‘ where offenders face up to a year in jail and fines of double the “economic loss” a farm suffers as a result of its abusive practices being made public. Undeterred, she continues not only to grow crops on her family farm, but work as a field representative for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP).
Henning knows that this is not an issue she can address alone. Together with the SRAP, she’s just launched a National initiative called the Water Ranger program whose goal is to train people affected by CAFOs to become citizen scientists. The first program of its kind, it will provide ordinary concerned citizens the information and tools to hold polluters accountable for what they are doing to their communities. In turn, the training will empower them to hold state and federal agencies accountable for enforcing clean water laws.
What You Can Do
Despite multiple threats, Henning continues to speak out against factory farms, but she realizes that it’s her work as a farmer in rural Michigan — and the direct impact of CAFOs on members of her family — that made her aware of the issue. For the rest of us who may not live in close proximity to CAFOs, Henning encourages us to be aware of the problems associated with factory farms, and demand better products:
“It’s simple: If people knew how their meat, eggs and dairy products were actually produced, they would demand change. Change costs money — and that’s something the CAFOs, Big Ag players and the companies who market and sell their products have no intention of spending. Care enough to find a farmer and buy your meat and dairy products from a person who raises animals responsibly. ”
You can take direct action and join SRAP to stop factory farms taking root in your community. SRAP needs your support to advance crucial work in rural communities impacted by factory farms and by making this donation, are making the statement that good food doesn’t have to come at the expense of our air, water, farm animal welfare, or rural quality of life.
“This is not an issue for rural communities or some isolated agriculture problem. The health risks and environmental harm created by factory farms are touching all our lives every day.”