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The Problem with Factory Farms

In the first article, Claire Suddath interviews author David Kirby about his book "Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment."  In the second article below, David Kirby takes on manure and argues its benefits are wildly over-rated. – Ilene  

The Problem with Factory Farms

By Claire Suddath, courtesy of TIME 

Factory Farms - David Kirby interview at TIMEIf you eat meat, the odds are high that you’ve enjoyed a meal made from an animal raised on a factory farm (also known as a CAFO). According to the USDA, 2% of U.S. livestock facilities raise an estimated 40% of all farm animals. This means that pigs, chickens and cows are concentrated in a small number of very large farms. But even if you’re a vegetarian, the health and environmental repercussions of these facilities may affect you. In his book Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment, journalist David Kirby explores the problems of factory farms, from untreated animal waste to polluted waterways. Kirby talks to TIME about large-scale industrial farming, the lack of government oversight and the terrible fate of a North Carolina river.

What exactly is a factory farm?

The industrial model for animal food production first started with the poultry industry. In the 1930s and ’40s, large companies got into the farming business. The companies hire farmers to grow the animals for them. The farmers typically don’t own the animals — the companies do. It’s almost like a sharecropping system. The company tells them exactly how to build the farm, what to grow and what to feed. They manage everything right down to what temperature the barn should be and what day the animals are going to be picked up for slaughter. The farmer can’t even eat his or her own animals. People who grow chickens for Perdue in Maryland have to go down to the market and buy Perdue at the store.

We collectively refer to these facilities as factory farms, but that’s not an official name. The government designation is CAFO, which stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. Basically, it’s any farm that has 1,000 animal units or more. A beef cow is an animal unit. These animals are kept in pens their entire lives. They’re never outside. They never breathe fresh air. They never see the sun.

What are the health and environmental hazards of CAFOs?

For one, you’re often no longer feeding animals what they’re genetically designed to eat. CAFO cows eat a diet of milled grains, corn and soybeans, when they are supposed to eat grass. The food isn’t natural because they very often put growth hormones and antibiotics in it. That becomes a problem when you put that manure on the ground.

And the fact that there are thousands of animals packed into one farm is also a problem.

Oh, definitely. There are simply too many animals in too small of a place. In a traditional farm, a sustainable farm, you grow both crops and animals. There is a pasture, and you have a certain number of animals per acre. But when you have 2,000 cows per acre instead of two, you have a problem. You can’t fit them in a pasture — you fit them in a building. You can’t grow enough crops to feed them — you have to ship in their feed. You don’t have enough land to absorb their waste. It has nowhere to go.

So what happens to it?

The manure is liquefied. It gets flushed out into an open lagoon, where it is stored until farmers can use it on what few crops they do grow. There’s just so much of it, though. I’ve seen it sprayed into waterways and creeks. These lagoons filled with waste have been known to seep, leak, rupture and overtop. This stuff is untreated, by the way. We would never allow big, open cesspools of untreated human waste to just sit out on the ground near people’s homes and schools. And yet because it’s agriculture, the rules are different.

You write at length about North Carolina’s Neuse River. What happened there?

Hundreds of massive pig farms came into North Carolina in the 1990s. In Animal Factory, I tell the story of Rick Dove, a former Marine who retired and bought a fishing boat. One day he noticed the fish were dying in really weird ways. First there were the algae blooms. Algae creates oxygen during the day through photosynthesis and expels carbon dioxide at night. When that happens, there’s literally no oxygen in the water. Everything comes crawling up to the shore in the shallowest part of the river, trying to pump water through their gills. By the morning, they’re all dead. Everything — shrimp, crab, little fish called menhaden, eels, bass. People call it a "fish jubilee," ’cause they can just wade into the river and pick up free food.

Soon after this started happening, Rick Dove noticed the menhaden fish were developing round red circles on their flanks. They’d go into what was called a "death spiral." They just start swimming into little circles and just die. Nobody knew what was causing this. Pretty soon after that, the fishermen, including Rick and his son, noticed they were getting round red sores on their skin in the parts that touched the water. Then they’d get very disoriented. Fishermen would forget where they lived or where they’d docked their boats. Rick started to do some research. One day he read in a science magazine about pfiesteria, this very odd plankton that emits toxins that stun a fish so it can suck the fish’s blood. That’s what the lesions were. But the toxin also gets in the air, and that’s why fishermen were getting disoriented.

Rick wanted to know the source of this problem, so he went up in an airplane. That’s how I open Animal Factory, with him looking down at these massive pig farms. Sometimes you can even see the waste runoff going directly going into the water. Other times they’re out there spraying night and day because nobody is watching them. You can’t see this from the road. There are very few inspectors, and they’re not going to go out there and monitor everyone.

People probably assume this kind of stuff is regulated, but it’s not. Or at least not enough. What should the government be doing?

A lot of the laws are on the state and county level, so it depends on the political will and political culture of the individual state. That doesn’t mean Democrat or Republican. That means agriculture state vs. a state with not a lot of agriculture. What kind of laws have agriculture-friendly states passed? Some states say that if a company spills its manure, it doesn’t have to pay to clean it up. The taxpayers pay. If you try to pass pollution standards, the industry complains that they’re already too heavily regulated. They claim that if you force them to reduce how much they pollute, they’re not going to be able to operate. They’re essentially saying they can only make money by polluting and breaking the law. That should be unacceptable to everybody.

You spent three years reporting this story. What stands out?

One time I visited a pig farm, a regular farm — not a factory farm — in Illinois. Right across the street was a hog CAFO. The owner didn’t live there, of course. There’s no farm house on a factory farm, just business offices. At night, all the workers would leave, and all I’d hear as I was trying to fall asleep was the sound of the pigs fighting each other, biting each other, squealing, screeching all night long. It was like nothing I’ve ever heard before in my life, and it just didn’t stop. It sounded like kids being tortured over there. I’ll never forget that sound. It was very sad. 


Animal Factory Book Excerpt – Is Manure a Hazardous Substance? Blanche Lincoln Says "No"

Courtesy of David Kirby, originally published at Huffington Post

In my new book, "Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment," I describe the efforts of Pro-Agribusiness members of Congress who have been working hard to make sure that spilled animal waste from industrial farms is exempted from federal Superfund clean-up rules.

The now-endangered Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), along with House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Petersen (D-MN), are among several outspoken congressional champions of a rather obscure piece of legislation on a topic that few Americans spend much time pondering: Who should pay for manure spills at animal factories?

Ever since 2007, their efforts to undermine the Superfund law by permanently exempting manure as a hazardous waste has been "ruffling feathers on Capitol Hill," according to

Their bill did not pass, and has not yet been reintroduced in the current Congress. But it does beg the question: Is manure an organic fertilizer, or it is a dangerous pollutant with potentially devastating consequences for human health, the environment, and even local economies? It can, in fact, can be both.

The problem comes when too much livestock and poultry are concentrated into relatively small spaces, in order to facilitate the feeding and fattening of the animals as quickly as possible. These "concentrated animal feeding operations," or CAFOs, generate millions of gallons of waste, usually liquefied, every year. Often, the putrid crap-water is stored within massive earthen berms, euphemistically referred to as "lagoons."

But what happens when one of those lagoons burst, sending millions of gallons of brown sticky water onto neighboring properties and into waterways that belong to us all? Should we the taxpayers foot the bill? Blanche Lincoln and others seem to think so.

Please have a look at the following excerpt from "Animal Factory" - which describes a massive manure spill in North Carolina, as witnessed by one of the lead characters, Rick Dove of North Carolina, a retired Marine. Let me know what you think: Should the government exempt manure as a hazardous waste, shielded from the provisions of the Superfund law?

In June 1995, Rick got a call from Tom Madison, Riverkeeper on the New River, which flows past Jacksonville into a large estuary that cuts through Camp Lejeune before emptying into the Atlantic.

"Rick, we need you down here right away," he said. "There’s been a massive lagoon spill on the New River, fifteen miles upstream. The sludge is now moving toward Jacksonville. They say a whole slew of fish are dying upriver already. When can you get here?"

Rick went outside, cranked the Lonesome D onto its trailer, loaded in his monitoring machines, and drove the eighty miles down to Onslow County.

The spill was three days old by this point and DEM had said nothing, hoping the crisis would just go away, Rick reckoned.

He met Tom in Jacksonville, a town of twenty thousand people next to Camp Lejeune. They dropped the Lonesome D in the water and steered her upriver. As they cruised along, Tom explained the genesis of the spill. It had happened near the town of Richland, at a huge operation called Oceanview Farm. The Purina- run site had eleven barns housing one thousand animals apiece. One of the earthen berms of the eight- acre lagoon had given way, leaving a twenty-five- foot gash in the side. Within several chaotic minutes, twenty-five million gallons surged across roads, driveways, crops, wetlands, and woods, before draining into a New River tributary.

For more than a mile around the lagoon, surrounding property became a nightmarish moonscape of tobacco and soybeans painted black in a sticky, malodorous coating. On State Road 1235, motorists were forging a foot- deep river of brown water. Cleaning the shit from their undercarriages would be a nasty job. All around the accident, black, brackish pools of sludge had formed into mini- waste lagoons, each emitting a vomit- inducing stench. Much of the neighborhood was choking in a dank, heavy cloud of gases. Downstream, dead fish dangled from mucky bushes like devilish ornaments.


"They’re calling it the worst manure spill in North Carolina history," Tom said. 

Ironically, the state’s biggest spill had happened at its first hog farm to meet new requirements for protecting waterways. "Way to go, boys," Rick said sarcastically.

Two miles north of Jacksonville, Rick took his first reading with the water probe. The oxygen level was at zero. "Damn," he muttered. "We’re going to have a very long day here." Another mile upriver, the men began noticing streaks of discoloration flowing downstream-- wide bands of foamy grayish- yellow, with flecks of maroon around the edges. By now, Rick knew what hog odor smelled like; this was hog odor. A few miles later, oxygen readings rebounded somewhat, suggesting the worst of it was behind them.

"This big old blob of crap is going to reach Jacksonville in a couple of hours," Rick said. "We need to alert the officials there." They spun around, throttled the Lonesome D to her max speed of 50 miles per hour, and headed south through the foamy water. Back in Jacksonville, on a warm Sunday afternoon, the riverfront was teeming with vacationers and U.S. Marine Corps families unaware of the incident. People were boating, waterskiing, and frolicking on Jet Skis in wide lazy circles. Rick could not believe his eyes. "It’s been three days," he said, "why have no warnings been posted? Where the hell is our government?"

Rick reached for his cell phone and dialed the Onslow County health director.

Nobody was there on a Sunday, so he left a message. He called Ron Levine, the state health director-- same story. He even tried the local hospital, but they had no idea what to do. Ticked off, Rick asked Tom to help him handletter warning signs alerting people to the animal waste and dangerous pathogens in the water. They posted them on docks and bridges. They also opted for a more direct approach.

"Hog crap!" they cried to anyone in sight. "There’s hog crap coming downstream! Bacteria! Viruses!" As it dawned on vacationers that something dreadful was heading their way, they quickly abandoned the water. Within an hour, the riverfront was deserted. Still disgusted by the nonaction of the "authorities," Rick pulled the boat onto its trailer and drove home.

The next day, he gave Ron Levine hell. "What is wrong with you folks?" he yelled. "I’ve been after your butts for months, begging you to come down and have a look at our rivers, our dead fish, and our sick people. But you did nothing, Dr. Levine. And now there are millions of gallons of hog crap floating past Jacksonville, and you do nothing to warn folks. You are the health director, right?"


David Kirby was interviewed on March 4 by Leonard Lopate of WNYC Radio in New York. To listen, please CLICK HERE

See also: EPA Study: Autism Boom Began in 1988, Environmental Factors Are Assumed, by David Kirby (originally published at The Huffington Post.) 

David Kirby is author of Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment and Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy.

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