Food & Water Just Co-Director Michele Merkel talks about how we can use the power of the legal system to keep factory farm waste out of our water and ensure our food is safe to eat.
Factory farming is an unsustainable method of raising food animals that concentrates large numbers of animals into confined spaces. Factory farms are not compatible with a safe and wholesome food supply. It’s time to ban factory farms.
How did we get here?
Over the past three decades there has been an economic and geographic shift in how and where food animals are raised in the United States. Large scale factory farms have raising one type of animal have replaced small or medium scale farms that raised dairy and beef cattle, hogs, chickens and turkeys. The rise of factory farming has been driven by three factors: unchecked corporate power, misguided farm policy, and weak environmental and public health regulations.
Factory Farming Increases Corporate Control of our Food
As the number of companies that farmers sell livestock, eggs or milk to has decreased due to mergers and increasing consolidation of the food industry, the number of dairy, hog and beef cattle producers in the United States has also declined sharply over the last 20 years. The meatpacking, milk and egg processing industries have become more controlled by just a handful of big players and the remaining farms raising food animals have grown bigger. In the chicken industry, contract farming is now the norm-- meaning farmers sign up with a corporate integrator that provides the animals and the feed and micromanages the day-to-day operations on the farm-- often through the use of unfair one-sided contracts. The real price farmers receive for livestock has trended steadily downward for the last two decades. Most farmers barely break even. Learn more about corporate control in our food system.
Bad Public Policy Facilitates Factory Farming
Misguided farm policy has artificially reduced the cost of feed. Since the passage of the 1996 farm bill, farm policy has encouraged overproduction of crops such as corn and soybeans. This overproduction harms family farms by reducing the value of these crops and forcing farmers to plant additional acreage in order to make a living. While this overproduction is bad for family farmers, it’s a boon to the corporate agribusinesses that purchase these crops for use in animal feed and creates an indirect subsidy to the meat industry.
Waste From Factory Farms: An Environmental and Public Health Crisis
For several decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state governments have failed to regulate the environmental impacts of factory farms. When factory farms operate virtually unregulated the environment and nearby rural communities pay the price. The vast quantities of manure from factory farms can — and do — make their way into the local environment where they pollute air and water. Several municipal water systems in the midwest where many factory farms are located must regularly implement costly clean up techniques to remove factory farm pollution from the water supply in order to avoid public health disasters. Likewise, pollution from factory farms runs off into streams that feed into our major waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico—contributing to algal blooms and dead zones that impact water supplies and destroy aquatic ecosystems, recreation and livelihoods.
Small, diversified farms that raise animals alongside other crops have always used manure as fertilizer without polluting water. The difference with factory farms is scale. They produce so much waste in one place that it must be applied to land in quantities that exceed the soil’s ability to absorb it as fertilizer.
Factory Farms Are Unsafe Workplaces
Factory farms are unhealthy and stressful work environments. Workers are subjected to increased exposure to air pollutants produced at factory farms, including particulate matter carrying mold, animal dander and pathogens. Exposure to air pollutants can lead to respiratory illness, in fact an estimated one quarter of hog confinement workers suffer from chronic bronchitis.
They are also astonishingly unsafe workplaces. In 2016, 6 out of every 100 workers in the animal production industry reported a work-related injury or illness. Tyson meat packing plants reported on average one amputation per month in the first nine months of 2015. Across the county, regulations to prevent workplace industries have not kept pace with the rapid growth of factory farms. Idaho had two deaths in 2016 caused by workers falling into dairy manure ponds and drowning. In both cases, federal regulators fined the dairies just $5,000.
Factory Farms Threaten Public Health
Factory farms contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Every single day, factory farms feed animals routine, low doses of antibiotics to prevent disease in filthy, crowded living conditions. In fact, 80% of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are by agriculture. Overuse of antibiotics creates conditions for bacteria to develop resistance to them, and when these antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread to humans either in our food supply, via animal to human transfer on farms, or through contaminated waste they can cause serious or even deadly antibiotic-resistant infections in people. Over two million Americans suffer from an antibiotic-resistant infection every year, and 23,000 people die. The FDA has known about the misuse of antibiotics since the 1970s, but has not required factory farms to stop this dangerous practice.
Factory Farms Create Food Safety Risks
The stressful, crowded conditions of factory farms make it easy for disease to spread, which can also lead to food safety risks. When thousands of beef cattle are packed into feedlots full of manure, bacteria can get on their hides and then into slaughterhouses where bacteria on even one animal can contaminate thousands of pounds of meat. In 2010, the crowded, unsanitary conditions at two Iowa egg companies caused a recall of more than half a billion potentially Salmonella-tainted eggs.
What’s worse is that our government, at the urging of the biggest companies, is trying to essentially deregulate the inspection system for meat and poultry by allowing company inspectors to replace government inspectors, and allowing companies to increase line speeds making it nearly impossible to ensure that all birds and carcasses are closely inspected before heading to processing.