CAFOs — An Unregulated Assault on the Air & Water

hog-cafo-798035David Cassuto

Today’s NYT does a good job of describing the environmental and human health crisis wrought by CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations).  It does a less good job of describing the horrendous conditions imposed on the animals thus confined.  Still, a lot of tragedy gets captured in this little vignette:

In June, Mr. Natzke explained to visiting kindergarteners that his cows produced 1.5 million gallons of manure a month. The dairy owns 1,000 acres and rents another 1,800 acres to dispose of that waste and grow crops to feed the cows.

“Where does the poop go?” one boy asked. “And what happens to the cow when it gets old?”

“The waste helps grow food,” Mr. Natzke replied. “And that’s what the cow becomes, too.”

The thrust of the article concerns the lack of regulations controlling CAFO emissions as well as the ways that Big Ag squashes all attempts to change the status quo.  Consider this: Five thousand pigs produce as much raw sewage as a town of 20,000 people.  That statistic alone makes factory farming environmentally problematic and in need of regulatory oversight.  But there’s more.

Pig waste is more concentrated than human waste and tends to contain both pathogens and antibiotics.  Yet, waste from pigs does not go to a sewage treatment facility; it tends to go straight on to the ground, where it eventually makes its way into the groundwater and into the air, causing respiratory problems, antibiotic resistance, and more.  Habitat loss and degradation, erosion, water depletion, pollution and salinization, agrochemical contamination, the above-mentioned animal waste and air pollution are also serious and growing CAFO-related problems.  And still, industrial agriculture remains virtually unregulated.

Of the major federal environmental statutes, only the Clean Water Act applies to CAFOs at all.  Although CAFOs themselves are subject to the CWA permitting process known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), runoff from the huge corn and grain growers that supply the CAFOs is explicitly exempted, even when that runoff reaches navigable waterways.  The CWA also has a cooperative component under which permitting and enforcement obligations fall to the states.  Unfortunately, resources at the state level for administering CWA permitting programs are inadequate.  Even states with large numbers of CAFOs have few resources with which to oversee them (this is likely no coincidence).

This dearth of regulation does not result from collective inaction or failure to recognize the damage from industrial agriculture.  Rather, as Professor J.B. Ruhl notes, “Congress has actively prevented their intersection through a nearly unbroken series of decisions to exclude farms and farming from the burdens of federal environmental law, with states mainly following suit.”  Ruhl calls this a “vast ‘anti-law’ of farms and the environment.”  The combination of a powerful agricultural lobby, the family farm’s hold on the collective national imagination, and the short-term profits of industrial agriculture have proved too potent a mix for any would-be regulators or lasting national outrage.

The result is what the Times article describes – a systemic and ongoing national catastrophe.

3 Responses

  1. It really is a disgrace how the agencies meant to protect it’s citizens have turned it’s back on the people.

    Just as a small example I know some people who live in North Carolina. They live miles away from these CAFO’s, yet the stench (and flies) have no problem traveling that distance. Both are horrific. These folks desperately wish to sell their homes. But in today’s down turned market, added to the unattractiveness of the environment, they might as well wish to win a lottery. It is impossible to even get realtors to list homes surrounding a CAFO.

    The infuriating thing is the farmers can all rightfully claim that they are “following the law”. This problem with manure discharge is long overdue to be fixed. I’m glad of this exposure through the NYT. I only hope enough wise people have the integrity to repair, (eliminate) the problem – Animal agriculture.

  2. […] CAFOs — An Unregulated Assault on the Air & Water […]

  3. […] CAFOs — An Unregulated Assault on the Air & Water […]

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