CAFOs have no science to stand on

Ken Midkiff

EDITOR'S NOTE: CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation

Published Friday, September 19, 2008

By today’s standards, my FFA - then Future Farmers of America - project wasn’t much: 12 hogs (or 4.2 "animal units" by the reckoning of the federal government). Even with that small number, my mother insisted that the hog pen be situated downwind from the clothesline.

No one needed to do scientific studies to tell us hogs didn’t smell like roses. But the scientific studies have now been done that confirm what our noses - and stinky clothes - told us on that Illinois farm about 50 years ago. The only difference is that now some of the compounds causing the unpleasant aroma have been identified, and some of those compounds, according to public health studies, cause human health problems, from flu-like symptoms to severe asthmatic attacks.

The sound-science research studies done by institutions as diverse as the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Iowa State University and the Minnesota Department of Public Health have clearly documented that the preponderance of evidence is that emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations cause human health harm. These emissions can be measured - either by instruments measuring stink or by scientific analysis of the compounds.

Likewise, there are all sorts of scientific studies documenting the ill effects of CAFOs on water quality - everything from heavy algal blooms from excess "nutrients" contained in the manure and feces of farm animals confined in small quarters to problems with bacteria (primarily E. coli) contained in the innards of mammals.

There are reams and reams of sound science studies conducted on CAFOs that demonstrate negative impacts. Likewise, there are economic studies and social services data showing harm to the rural economy and to the residents of rural areas and rural communities. It seems that CAFOs are an economic liability, not a benefit. Thanks to support from the U.S. House, Senate and chief executive, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and land-grant universities, CAFOs continue to enjoy taxpayer largesse. In several states, counties’ tax assessors, not removed from on-the-ground reality, have reduced the assessed value of land adjacent to CAFOs by up to 30 percent and consequently reduced counties’ budgets.

The American Public Health Association, reviewing the many documents, called for a halt - a moratorium on permitting of CAFOs. Several recent reports - the most notable from the Pew Commission - found CAFOs culpable on health matters.

However, some folks are gullible and believe the hype put out by agribusinesses and activist organizations - the Farm Bureau, Pork Producers Association and the Poultry Federation, to name but a few - that are shills for CAFOs. Having no, or very scanty, scientific documentation or any studies that cite the benefits of CAFOs, the advocates are reduced to such sayings as "we need to feed a hungry world" and "this is the future of agriculture."

This is all based, of course, on emotion and passion fueled by a quest for the almighty dollar.

There is absolutely no evidence that the meat, milk and eggs produced by CAFOs have resulted in more food for hungry mouths of starving peasants in Southeast Asia, Africa or South America. To the contrary, world hunger has increased.

Likewise, the arguments about "the future of agriculture" ring hollow. At present, CAFOs represent less than one-half of 1 percent of Missouri agriculture. Those who equate agriculture with agribusiness are hopelessly confused, and cries of, "You’re trying to end agriculture in this state," are the result of such confusion. CAFOs are little more than factories with a legal definition of "agriculture" for tax purposes. "Ending agriculture" only applies to the type of "agriculture" practiced by agribusiness corporations and their contract growers.

As for those misguided folks who claim that organizations representing real farmers and conservation and environmental groups are trying to return farming practices to the mid-20th century, that is just part of the "future of agriculture" nonsense. CAFOs are passé - part of the industrial era that devastated the American economy. We should have learned from the rusting factories in U.S. cities.

It does not take a rocket scientist to recognize that some modern practices should be adopted and others discarded. Confining thousands of animals in small spaces, injecting them with antibiotics, stuffing hormones into their feed and spreading the manure onto the same fields year after year have been shown to be harmful practices and should be rejected or abandoned. We now have more than 20 years of experience with CAFOs, and what we now know was not known (but suspected) initially: CAFOs pollute the air and water and cause economic and human health problems. The sound-science studies are in, and a reassessment is in order.

But those who advocate for CAFOs are not deterred by scientific studies or facts. CAFOs have been documented to be harmful to human health and the rural economy.

Emotion and passion are poor substitutes for research reports, scientific studies, data and facts, but that’s what CAFO supporters are reduced to relying on.