KAT: We talk a lot about the factory farms that provide most of our meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, but most Americans have no idea what really goes on inside a CAFO, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.
You, however, saw a number of these fetid facilities firsthand when you served on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production a couple of years ago. And industrial livestock production's role in degrading our environment, undermining our health, abusing animals and exploiting workers in the name of efficiency has been well-documented, most recently in Dan Imhoff's massive, and massively disturbing, coffee table book CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories.
Given all the problems inherent in industrial livestock production, do you see a future for factory farming?
Dr. Nestle: I do not think factory farming is going away. Most people like meat and want to eat it, and do so the minute they get enough money to buy it.
I think a more realistic question is this: Can factory farming be done better? The interesting thing about the Pew Commission's investigations was that we were taken to factory farms where people were trying to do things right, or at least better. Even so, it was mind-boggling to see an egg facility that gave whole new meaning to the term "free range." And these eggs were organic, yet. The hens were not caged, but there were thousands of them all over each other. This place did a fabulous job of composting waste and the place did not smell bad. But it did not in any way resemble anyone's fantasy of chickens scratching around in the dirt.
Factory farming raises issues about its effects on the animals, the environment, the local communities, and food safety. As someone invested in public health and food safety, I care about all of those. The effects on the animals are obvious, and those will never go away no matter how well everything else is done.
But the everything else could be done much, much better. The first big issue is animal waste. It stinks. It's potentially dangerous. Most communities have laws that forbid this level of waste accumulation, but the laws are not enforced, often because the communities are poor and disenfranchised.
The second is antibiotics, particularly the use of antibiotic drugs as growth promoters. This selects for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and is, to say the least, not a good idea.
The factory farming system could be greatly improved by forcing the farms to manage waste and restricting use of antibiotics. This will not solve the fundamental problems, but it will help.
I'm hoping that more environmentally friendly meat production will expand, and factory farming will contract. That would be better for public health in the short and long run.
Fugitive Waste: Despite efforts to contain manure from CAFOs through infrastructure and nutrient management plans, the wastes often become "fugitive," washing into waterways and traveling airborne across communities. The result is what Brother David Andrews of Food and Water Watch has called a "fecal flood" in rural areas across America. Humane Society of the United States/CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories
A broiler barn where 30,000 chickens grown for meat live for seven weeks on their own waste. Feed and watering systems is automatic. One of the principal jobs on the broiler CAFO is shuffling through barns to retrieve downer animals. David Harp/CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories
Modern hog CAFOs house as many as 1,250 hogs in a single building. The highly curious and energetic hogs, packed twenty per stall, never see the light of day, roll in the mud, or naturally socialize. They live atop slatted concrete floors that allows their waste to pass through into vast catchments below the building. Don Poggensee CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories
Aerial view of windowless factory hog barns and adjacent manure lagoons. The concept is for the manure to be spread across the landscape as fertilizer, without negatively affecting the surrounding air or groundwater. Normally, however, CAFOs are heavily concentrated in poor rural areas of the country, often with animals producing far more waste than the surrounding lands can safely absorb at certain times of the year. Many are sited in regions prone to cyclical heavy storms, flooding and even hurricanes. 2008 J Henry Fair/CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories
The arrival of factory farms in a rural area almost inevitably divides a community, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and often family member against family member. Living in the country then also means living with oppressive and unpredictable odors, compromised health, declining property values, and the need to organize citizen scientists to monitor impacts on water quality. Socially responsible Agriculture Project/CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories
If you're in the NYC area, please join Eating Liberally and Kitchen Table Talks this Thursday, April 14th at NYU's Fales Library to hear Dr. Nestle, Dan Imhoff, and Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss address the question "What's the Matter with Mass-Produced Meat?" The discussion will be moderated by Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats. Event details here.
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