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Toward Healthier Farms

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Most of us have some conception of what a farm looks like. Perhaps a modest homestead with a few barns, surrounded by fields of crops. Perhaps small herds of livestock of various different kinds grazing on rolling pastures. Maybe some chickens. 

Until recently, this image, though idealized, was actually pretty accurate. Small, diversified, family-run farms have been a fixture of the American landscape since the country’s birth, and for centuries these farms were the backbone of U.S. agriculture. Over recent decades however, technological developments, economic forces and a failure of agricultural policy to protect small farmers have seen these kinds of farms gradually replaced by massive, specialized industrial operations, most of them controlled by a handful of multinational agribusinesses. This has consequences for our health and environment, and with livestock in particular, these consequences can be severe.

In a previous post, I discussed how breeding and raising thousands of animals in extreme confinement creates hotbeds for dangerous pathogens to circulate and evolve into forms that can infect humans, as has happened time and time again in countries throughout the world where deadly pandemics have been traced back to factory-farmed animals. But the spillover of viruses like swine flu and bird flu – both of which emerged from industrial livestock facilities – is the tip of a fearsome iceberg.

Unlike traditional farms, today’s industrial livestock operations tend to specialize in one specific type of livestock, or even one particular stage in an animal’s life. This is a profoundly unnatural way to raise animals, and as such, it requires profoundly unnatural interventions in order to work. Animals in these facilities are often fed daily doses of antibiotics, for example, to offset the elevated risk of infection caused by intense confinement. This contributes to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which, when transmitted to humans, can lead to dangerous antibiotic-resistant infections. In the U.S. alone, antibiotic resistance affects an estimated 2 million people every year, and kills up to 23,000.

The vast quantities of manure these farms produce – often disposed of on land, as fertilizer – can contain high concentrations of these bacteria, along with a range of other pollutants that can poison surface and groundwater and do massive ecological damage – among other things, fueling toxic algae outbreaks and creating huge “dead zones” that kill fish and other wildlife. The same goes for the millions of pounds of toxic effluent released into our waterways every year from the slaughterhouses where factory-farmed animals end up. In 2014, for example, runoff from agribusiness operations contributed to a toxic algae outbreak in Lake Erie which contaminated the drinking water for 500,000 people around Toledo with cyanotoxins.

A system of food production that poses dangers of this magnitude is clearly neither desirable nor sustainable – and given that its emergence was driven in large part by a deliberate set of policy decisions, it’s well within our power to change it.

A moratorium on new or expanded CAFOs should be a central pillar of any serious effort to prevent future disease outbreaks, with the ultimate aim of phasing out these kinds of facilities altogether and transitioning back to smaller and more diversified farms. This means requiring producers to take steps to end the extreme confinement of livestock, with subsidies incentivizing a shift to smaller farms and pasture-based systems that give animals more space and freedom to engage in healthy, natural behaviors, with access to natural forage instead of antibiotic-laced industrial feeds.

We also need to see the introduction of subsidies favoring more diversified farms, producing both grain and livestock, as an alternative to industrial livestock operations that grow little or none of the grain used in their own feed. In addition to a range of other environmental benefits, a return to smaller and more diversified farms would put an end to the excessive manure production that causes water pollution and enables the spread of viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria to human populations, firstly since these kinds of farms tend to be much more efficient in using all of the manure produced by their own livestock in an economically and environmentally beneficial way, and secondly since raising animals in this way removes the need for routine use of antibiotic-saturated feed.

The shift back to this healthier and more environmentally beneficial kind of farming will require reversing certain policies that have propelled the growth of industrial livestock operations, and in particular those that subsidize their operation costs at the expense of smaller farms.

It will require, for example, reform of the subsidies that encourage farm specialization and intensification, including the crop insurance programs we discuss in our report Reaping What We Sow, as well as various other federal policies that subsidize the production of commodity crops such as corn and soybeans. These subsidies have been a major factor in the rise of CAFOs, for whom feed grain costs make up a sizable percentage of their overhead, to the detriment of other forms of agriculture. More diversified farms that grow their own feed and thus don’t use subsidized grain are put at a disadvantage by these practices and by the absence of subsidies for alternative forms of agriculture, e.g., pasture production, and non-grain forages.

For sure, the rise of factory farms increased efficiency in food production – at least, as long as our measurements of “efficiency” don’t include the human and ecological costs of massive-scale environmental damage and disease outbreaks that kill thousands of people. If we want to emerge from this pandemic a little less likely to experience another one, it is at best nonsensical and at worst dangerously irresponsible to continue spending millions of taxpayer dollars subsidizing a form of agriculture that turns our food animals into a threat to public health.

John Rumpler, Environment America, contributed to this post.

Photo via Piqsels, Creative Commons Zero - CC0