Beyond Factory Farms by Melinda Hemmelgarn
Jul 13, 2020 02:41PM
By Michelle Vacanti
Kevin Walker, a Michigan State University professor and author of The Grand Food Bargain and the Mindless Drive for More, says, “Meat is the poster child of industrial food gone awry.” Independent animal farmers are disappearing while factory farms are getting bigger, causing more air, soil and water pollution in rural communities nationwide, reports theCenter for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Large industrialized farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), rely on the routine use of antibiotics to both prevent the spread of disease and promote animal growth and weight gain―a practice known to fuel antibiotic resistance and compromise human health.
High Cost of Cheap Meat
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a push toward greater efficiency created the shift to industrial livestock production. However, attempts to maximize production for higher returns at minimal cost come at a price.
For example, a growing body of evidence shows that CAFO leads to the social and economic decline of rural communities. “Research has consistently found that living near a CAFO is associated with an array of negative health impacts, including respiratory disease, mental health problems and certain types of infections,” says Keeve Nachman, Ph.D., director of the CLF’s Food Production and Public Health Program.
Everett Murphy, M.D., a retired pulmonologist from Kansas City, concurs, “Not only are the odors from factory livestock farms offensive, but individuals living within three miles of industrial animal operations are at risk for serious, life-shortening illnesses and permanent disabilities.” Concrete reservoirs designed to hold manure present a problem as well, he adds, “They always leak into the groundwater, spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria and making the source of water to neighboring communities unusable and toxic.”
Joan Olive says she is living proof that exposure to air pollution from factory farms is every bit as toxic as scientists and health experts have warned about for years. On one fateful December day 16 years ago, Olive was outdoors on her family farm near Spencer, Iowa, when she noticed a strong, sickening odor. Feeling nauseous, she went inside, but later that evening she recalls, her tongue swelled, she became disoriented and began shaking and sweating profusely.
Olive’s symptoms subsided over the next few days, but since then she has experienced multiple chemical sensitivities, transient symptoms of brain fog, muscle twitching, migraines, respiratory and circulatory problems. Health experts at the University of Iowa identified the source of the sickening odor as toxic hydrogen sulfide from liquid CAFO waste that had been sprayed on farmland one mile from Olive’s home. In addition to the region’s concentration of hog CAFO, her home sat two miles from 1.5 million chickens.
Today, Olive drinks filtered water and eats organic food to protect her health, but she notices that her symptoms return when triggered by exposure to CAFO air pollution and pesticides. In March, Olive moved to Spearfish, South Dakota, where she’s breathing easier and enjoying time outdoors. But she knows she left behind “thousands of rural residents who are having their lives and health destroyed by Big Ag.”
There Ought to be a Law
“Government oversight and policies designed to safeguard the health of individuals and the environment from these operations have been inadequate,” says Bob Martin, director of the CLF Food System Policy Program.
Citing environmental and public health hazards, the American Public Health Association issued a new policy statement last November calling for a precautionary moratorium on all new and expanding CAFO. It advises a complete halt until additional scientific data has been collected and public health concerns addressed.
Bypassing Industrial Eating
Many consumers don’t realize that the majority of beef, pork and chicken sold in supermarkets, served in restaurants and distributed to institutions nationwide come from the industrial food system. According to the Public Justice Food Project, 85 percent of the meat Americans consume is produced by four corporate giants―Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill and JBS―each accused of hiding labor, animal or environmental abuses behind folksy brand names and packaging images.
To shed light on abuses and steer consumers away from industrial meat, the Center for Food Safety created a website that pulls back the curtain on CAFOs. It recommends replacing half of the meat we eat with humane, sustainably raised, grass-fed and organic meat, while replacing the other half with plant-based sources of protein such as beans, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds―a dietary approach that benefits our gut microbes and protects us against a host of chronic diseases.
In Cows Save the Planet and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, author Judith Schwartz describes how grazing animals play a key role in restoring soil health, and therefore human health. “Well-managed pastures and grasslands with ruminant animals can sequester more carbon than they emit, improve soil health and increase groundwater recharge,” explains Thistlethwaite. Plus, both livestock and poultry can make use of inedible feeds that humans don’t consume, such as grass and sagebrush.
Power to the People
Rangan and Harris emphasize that the power of consumer spending can shift the market. However, Thistlethwaite says, “We cannot just vote with our forks, as many people don’t have that luxury.” She urges change at both personal and political levels, favoring incentive-based approaches with fewer subsidies going to the industrial system.
“We need more farmers raising high-quality animals in a humane, ecologically responsible manner,” says Thistlethwaite. But we also need more small-scale slaughterhouses and meat processors throughout the country to get quality meat to more of our tables.
In addition to farmers’ markets, co-operatives and community supported agriculture (CSA), organizations such as the American Grassfed Association and Local Harvest connect consumers directly to farmers using sustainable practices to help rebuild regional food hubs and networks.
“Start with small steps,” suggests Thistlethwaite. “Buy milk from a local creamery, eggs from a farmer in your community or one-quarter cow to fill your freezer from a local, grass-fed beef producer. Reward the farms and ranches that are doing it right by purchasing from them, promoting them, supporting them.”
Melinda Hemmelgarn is an award-winning registered dietitian, writer and nationally syndicated radio host based in Columbia, MO. Reach her at [email protected]. Tune into Food Sleuth Radio at kopn.org.