What is a CAFO, and why should you care?

January 21st, 2007

cafoIf you aren’t sure what exactly a CAFO is, or wonder what all the fuss about factory-scale farms is about, take a few minutes to read this new piece in Rolling Stone called “Pork’s Dirty Secret: The nation’s top hog producer is also one of America’s worst polluters”:

“Smithfield’s holding ponds — the company calls them lagoons — cover as much as 120,000 square feet. The area around a single slaughterhouse can contain hundreds of lagoons, some of which run thirty feet deep. The liquid in them is not brown. The interactions between the bacteria and blood and afterbirths and stillborn piglets and urine and excrement and chemicals and drugs turn the lagoons pink.”

The article goes into graphic detail, focusing on what the factory pork industry has done to the people of North Carolina:

“It was the biggest environmental spill in United States history, more than twice as big as the Exxon Valdez oil spill six years earlier. The sludge was so toxic it burned your skin if you touched it, and so dense it took almost two months to make its way sixteen miles downstream to the ocean. From the headwaters to the sea, every creature living in the river was killed. Fish died by the millions.”

Some of the most descriptive passages focus on the unique, toxic stench associated with large operations:

“I’ve probably smelled stronger odors in my life, but nothing so insidiously and instantaneously nauseating. It takes my mind a second or two to get through the odor’s first coat. The smell at its core has a frightening, uniquely enriched putridity, both deep-sweet and high-sour. I back away from it and walk back to the car but I remain sick — it’s a shivery, retchy kind of nausea — for a good five minutes.”

It’s important to recognize that the stench, pollution, and runoff from CAFO’s and similar industrial livestock operations are not the normal “farm smells” that most Hoosiers are very familiar with:

“We are used to farm odors,” says one local farmer. “These are not farm odors.” Sometimes the stink literally knocks people down: They walk out of the house to get something in the yard and become so nauseous they collapse. When they retain consciousness, they crawl back into the house.”

Governor Daniels has made development of factory farms in Indiana the centerpiece of his agricultural policy, and many communities across the state are struggling to cope with the science and politics of permitting new operations seeking to locate in their backyards.

The Indiana Department of Agriculture, with the Indiana Land Resouces Council, is currently conducting “listening sessions”to develop model local ordinances regarding land use and zoning to apply to factory farm operations, but the Department of Agriculture’s announcement of these meetings specifically points out that the “Indiana Land Resources Council will not consider a farmland preservation program or environmental regulations” as part of their recommendations.

Several bills dealing with CAFO’s have been filed this session (inculding HB1197 and SB447 ), and the topic was raised with IDEM Commissioner Easterly at our last Environmental Affairs committee meeting. The Commissioner said IDEM would support a policy of requiring local approval of CAFOs before IDEM issues its permits. However, he also felt it was currently too difficult to discern what exactly would constitute official “local approval.” That may be an area we are able to do some work on this session.

For more information, see:
Kemplog - day-to-day coverage of CAFO issues in Indiana
Grace Factory Farm Project - anti-CAFO
Farm Bureau - generally pro-CAFO, or anti-regulation
Journal of Extension - generally neutral research into all sorts of agricultural issues

Entry Filed under: Environment, Agriculture

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dave Williams  |  January 24th, 2007 at

    A good starting point would be to roll back the legislation that makes it impossible for neighbors to file a nuisance lawsuit against a CAFO operator. The ag apologists will claim that this legislation protects the operators from the “city people” who move into the country and are offended by the odor, noises, etc. associated with farming. The people who are affected by the CAFO operations are typically people who have lived in a rural setting their entire lives, many of them are farmers themselves. Now, they have no legal recourse if a CAFO makes it impossible to enjoy thier yards or leave their windows open during the summer months. This needs to change.

  • 2. Thomas Kemp  |  January 24th, 2007 at

    Thanks for giving coverage to these measures. This is not the first year there have been calls in the legislature to stop and consider factory farming before the state goes “whole hog.” I hope it gets farther this time.

    I must say that Mr. Williams’ comment is critical: how can the legislature put into law that a change from a corn field to an 8,000 hog industrial operation is not a change in use?

    The denial of owners’ rights to complain about the noxious activities of their neighbors is a taking of valuable property rights, and it will result in lower property values across this state.

  • 3. Ryan Dvorak  |  January 24th, 2007 at

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with your assessments of the change in nusiance law in 2005. I voted against the bill at the time, and I suspect not everyone who supported it understood the true impact of the change.

    But even if that legislation were repealed, I doubt nusiance suits would always best answer to CAFO problems. They could be one tool to use, but they can be difficult to try, and move the enforcement burden (and costs) from the state to the citizens.

    A real, long-term, regulatory approach to industrial-scale livestock operations probably needs to start with the state to have a meaningful impact.

  • 4. Annette Holdeman  |  February 10th, 2007 at

    We are property owners near the small town of Boswell, Indiana. Yesterday the Lafayette Journal & Courier reported, broke the story to many of us, about 2 CAFO’s near the town and 2 more to the south 4- 5 miles. We are a small town with basically not to much going for it, our grocery store closed down a few years ago. We have a restaurant, a bank, post office and 2 gas stations and that is about it these days. I have been aware of the terribly negative imact of CAFO’s for quite a while now, so when I read the J&C article, my heart sank. What can we do. I found the IDEM pdf file showing that the NPDS Applicaton was made on behalf of North Fork Farms, LLC in December 2006! What can we do to help convince people of all the negatives to this venture? Can you help anyone? The CAFO’s seem to have their advocates Mike Veenhuizen, Phd (Purdue), Owner & President of Livestock Engineering Solution (he’s an renowned expert in manure handling). Who can we find to advocate for us??? Many Thanks in advance for your advise and thoughts.

  • 5. Ryan Dvorak  |  February 13th, 2007 at

    I would suggest you do a number of things: Talk with your local officials about adopting a county ordinance regarding CAFOs; get local community members together to discuss the issue; take your collective concerns to the press; definitely contact your State Representative and State Senator about the numerous CAFO bills pending in the Legislature.

    We are working on several options legislatively, including one bill that we will be voting on in the Environmental Affairs Committee this week to require all local approvals are met before a CAFO can be constructed.

    It is important that concerned citizens such as yourself get your elected officials to advocate on your (and all of your neighbors’) behalf. Good luck!

  • 6. Grant County Resident  |  October 26th, 2007 at

    I am a 25 year old resident in Grant County, Indiana. Right now we have a CAFO that has gotten permission to come to our area. Luckily 4 resident couples are going to appeal that decision in December. I have an almost 3 year old child who I certainly do not want to grow up in this CRAP (literally) and all the problems that come along with it. My husband and I have decided that if the CAFO comes to grant county we are OUTTA HERE! and a lot of our family will go will us. The grant county area is already a dying county and here they are running out more people .These CAFO’s arent bringing JOBS that we need, they are bring PROBLEMS that we DONT need!
    Soooo tired of these stupid government officials making pathetic and ignorant decisions.

  • 7. Tom  |  April 10th, 2008 at

    We had a CAFO expansion in Madison County. I’m all for the farmers making a living. But I’m against corporate farms coming in and damaging our environment.
    I attended the hearing for their expansion. One BZA member said that he didn’t think it would damage any wells. At this point of time, it was a known fact that it had damaged a well. These farmers acted like it was a joke.
    When asked about total water usage, the number that they gave averaged out to only one ounce of water a day per cow (less than 0.1% of what it should have been). The commissioners are always asking this question and should have known that it was bogus information. When I went to address some of this information to one of the commissioners, she immediately and rudely cut me off.
    At least two people emailed Indiana’s Lt. Governor and she came to Madison County (just to drive past the people who were worried about their wells and property value). She instead went to the CAFO’s ground breaking ceremony.
    The Governor, Lt. Governor and commissioners need to ask themselves a question. Which is: “Would they have done this if a CAFO was planted in their back yard?”
    Obviously the support people who could care less about our environment, people who give bogus information.

  • 8. abby007  |  July 14th, 2008 at

    Can CAFO expansion is danger to our environment.The posting above in suggestion of damage caused by feeding operations.The practice of raising farm animals in confinement at high stocking density, sometimes used more generally to describe operating a farm as a factory.In our region farmer has been planning to adopt this.Plz guide me so that further i can suggest them about its good and bad points.

  • 9. Tom  |  September 26th, 2008 at

    Source: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/SS197
    E. coli O157:H7 A Potential Health Concern
    Escherichia coli are bacteria that normally inhabit the intestines of humans and animals. Most strains are known to be harmless, but several of them can cause mild to serious disease. One strain in particular, named O157:H7, can cause severe diarrhea and in some cases lead to serious complications, even death.

    Its dangerous health implications: infection can lead to renal (kidney) damage and can be fatal.

    Who is at risk of infection?
    People from any age group are susceptible to infection with E. coli O157:H7. However, children, the elderly, and immuno-compromised individuals are more likely to get infected and develop complications. Residents of rural areas and workers employed at farms and slaughterhouses have greater exposure to E. coli O157:H7 due to possible contact with animal manure. However, large outbreaks have occurred in day care centers and nursing homes, posing risk to people associated with such settings. Consumers of bovine products may also be at a higher risk since most outbreaks reported involved consumption of improperly cooked ground beef.

    What are the symptoms and complications?
    Illness starts with severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps, often developing into bloody diarrhea. The symptoms usually occur three to four days after exposure. Some people infected by E. coli O157:H7 have no symptoms at all or only mild diarrhea. Complications include the hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) which results in destruction of red blood cells and kidney failure. HUS can also affect the nervous system causing seizures and eventually coma. High numbers of white blood cells, fever, anemia, and renal insufficiency are signs for HUS development. Although most people recover from HUS, it can be fatal.

    Taken from: Factory Farms & E. coli
    This ran in The New York Times on September 21, 2006.

    Indeed, this epidemic, which has infected more than 100 people and resulted in at least one death, probably has little do with the folks who grow and package your greens. The detective trail ultimately leads back to a seemingly unrelated food industry - beef and dairy cattle.

    First, some basic facts about this usually harmless bacterium: E. coli is abundant in the digestive systems of healthy cattle and humans, and if your potato salad happened to be carrying the average E. coli, the acid in your gut is usually enough to kill it.

    But the villain in this outbreak, E. coli O157:H7, is far scarier, at least for humans. Your stomach juices are not strong enough to kill this acid-loving bacterium, which is why it’s more likely than other members of the E. coli family to produce abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and, in rare cases, fatal kidney failure.

    The United States Department of Agriculture does recognize the threat from these huge lagoons of waste, and so pays 75 percent of the cost for a confinement cattle farmer to make manure pits watertight, either by lining them with concrete or building them above ground. But taxpayers are financing a policy that only treats the symptom, not the disease, and at great expense. There remains only one long-term remedy, and it’s still the simplest one: stop feeding grain to cattle.

    California’s spinach industry is now the financial victim of an outbreak it probably did not cause, and meanwhile, thousands of acres of other produce are still downstream from these lakes of E. coli-ridden cattle manure. So give the spinach growers a break, and direct your attention to the people in our agricultural community who just might be able to solve this deadly problem: the beef and dairy farmers.

    Nina Planck is the author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why.

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