August 18, 2020
Life on a Factory Farm
“It’s like putting your head in a sewer pit.”
15 minutes into an interview with Lynn Henning (United States, 2010) this June, this statement stopped me in my tracks. Lynn described the stench that emanates from neighboring concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and wafts over to her backyard. There are 13 CAFOs within a 10-mile radius of her home in Clayton, Michigan.
“I can’t have my grandkids over,” she continued. “I can’t have a barbecue. I have to keep Dean [Lynn’s husband] inside because of his past heart attack issues—it’s horrible.”
As an urbanite in California, this is hard for me to imagine. Like most city dwellers, I have never visited a factory farm. I purchase my meat during my weekly trip to the odor-free, cleanly packaged aisles of my nearest grocery store.
“Exactly,” Lynn agreed. “There is a massive lack of food system transparency. Consumers would be horrified if they saw the inside of a CAFO.”
As it turns out, the inside of a CAFO is not pretty. The US Environmental Protection Agency defines these factory farms as businesses that “congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area.” A CAFO has between 1,000 and millions of animal units and may discharge its manure and wastewater into man-made ditches, natural streams, and lagoons. The volume of urine and feces produced by CAFOs is often greater than that of cities; the waste from 2,500 cows is equivalent to that of 411,000 people.
The putrid smell of a CAFO is emblematic of its gruesome cocktail of noxious pollutants. Although the discharged wastewater is regulated under the federal Clean Water Act, there is little to no regulation on the spreading of the solid waste—which contains everything from growth hormones and antibiotics to birthing fluids—onto local farmland. Air pollution is reported but not regulated—CAFOs emit over 168 gases, including hazardous chemicals like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane, and air-borne particulate matter carries disease-causing bacteria and fungi. Both of Lynn’s in-laws were diagnosed with hydrogen sulfide poisoning in 2003.
“If we were to properly monitor the waste,” Lynn asserted, “the entire model would collapse because it would cease to be economically feasible. Which is pretty much the bottom line—the model only works because CAFOs don’t have to pay for the environmental and public health damages they cause.”
A Grassroots Shift to Responsible Agriculture
Upon learning that she had won the Goldman Prize in 2010, Lynn recalled that she was in total shock. “I’m just a small town, country farm girl, you know,” she laughed. But don’t let her affable nature fool you. Despite substantial federal subsidies and political power, CAFOs have found a formidable opponent in this rural Michigander and grandmother of four. Starting in 2000, Lynn began to exercise her talents as a citizen scientist in monitoring CAFO waste. Twenty years later, she continues to assert her rights as a citizen and enable others to do the same.
Lynn works at the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP), a nonprofit based in Colorado that educates communities about the harms of factory farming and empowers individuals to hold businesses and government accountable for keeping people safe. She helped create a group called “CAFO Busters” for concerned citizens willing to monitor public notices about CAFOs, provide comments on the record, and file complaints about factory farms. Over 100 people have also been trained in SRAP’s water ranger program, in which data collected through citizen science is shared with state and federal agencies. Starting with pilot programs in Michigan, Lynn’s goal is to create grassroots watchdog programs in every U.S. county where there is a CAFO.
In a testament to her organizational ability and work ethic, Lynn immediately followed up on our conversation with an excel document, pdfs, and numerous links so I could trace factory farms in my own home state. More than 1,000 California CAFOs materialized in front of me. According to a 2018 report, there are over 20,000 permitted CAFOs in the United States, but the actual numbers may be much larger due to lack of industry transparency. If you’re interested in viewing the locations of CAFOs in your home state, consider contacting your regional representative, or take Lynn up on her offer—“just email us.”
COVID-19 Leads to National Food Awareness
In the past decade, CAFOs have grown larger and more numerous, while small local farms have been pushed aside—their idealism often preserved for consumer branding. However, “big is fragile,” Lynn noted. She explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many meat processing plants to shut down, forcing CAFO operators to kill and compost millions of animals.
With the direct experience of supermarket shortages at the start of quarantine, the link between food and public health has emerged front-and-center for consumers. Lynn is optimistic that as recognition of our current food system’s fragility becomes mainstream, it will compel a shift away from mass livestock production. She feels that change is afoot but encourages deeper engagement.
In Lynn’s words, “vote with your ballot and vote with your fork.”
This blog post is part of the Prize Winners Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?
About the author
Digital Communications Manager
Ellen is excited to elevate the stories and amplify the impact of Goldman Prize recipients around the globe. She manages the Prize’s digital presence, produces written and visual content, and contributes to strategic communications planning. Prior to joining the Prize, Ellen held various roles in the solar industry, from marketing to education program management. She holds a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies, with minors in Spanish and Environmental Systems and Society from the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the Prize in 2020.