The CAFO Reader — a new book featuring essays by farmers Wendell Berry, Becky Weed, and Fred Kirschenmann, Republican speech writer Matthew Scully, journalist Michael Pollan, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., among many others — gives a full picture of the environmental, social, and ethical implications of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), and includes a section of essays on “Putting the CAFO Out to Pasture.” A CAFO is an Environmental Protection Agency designation for a farming facility that keeps numerous animals raised for food in close confinement, with the potential to pollute. These facilities often produce extreme amounts of waste, which ends up in toxic lagoons, sprayed on the land, and eventually in the watershed; require the use of high doses of antibiotics, thereby adding to the growth of drug-resistant bacteria; and are exempt from most animal cruelty laws.
I spoke with the editor of The CAFO Reader, Daniel Imhoff, who is also the cofounder, director, and publisher of Watershed Media, about recent legislation and the future of the CAFO.
Q. Our last interview was before Obama was elected. How do you feel now that the USDA has the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program and we have a Secretary of Agriculture who’s actually discussing making changes in agriculture?
A. You can’t help but be thrilled about the discourse that is going on right now. You have the FDA coming out with guidelines saying is that we need to limit the use of antibiotics in animal food production only to medical need. Then you have the USDA issuing new nutritional guidelines that basically say we need to eat a lot less saturated fat, AKA animal products, and a lot more vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. Then you have the Department of Justice, the attorney general, and the USDA jointly looking into concentration within the agricultural industry. I think what it really shows is that these people understand their jobs and are not afraid to do them. We might be getting towards an age of clarity and urgency. You can’t help but look at the oil spill, and say there is an exact metaphor with the industrial food system — it’s uncontainable, and it’s unsustainable, and it’s inevitable that we have to get somewhere else. And that something else is pretty much the exact opposite of what we have right now.
Q. If CAFOs were called “factories” instead of being called farms, would they be regulated differently?
A. If the CAFO is legally considered a farm, or an agricultural enterprise, rather than an industry, then it is exempt from regulation of its airborne and land-borne waste. The industry has been fighting for many years to retain this agricultural status. Agriculture developed as this interaction between the appropriate number of animals creating fertility for a diverse number of crops. It was a whole closed production system. With this intensive concentration of animals it’s rare when the surrounding land can absorb the waste.
Q. What effect do you think a change in our policies around antibiotic use in livestock would have on the way the industry operates?
A. It cuts right to the issue of scale. If you take away the antibiotics, then you can’t cram so many animals in such unhealthy conditions with an unnatural diet. And so you suddenly have to reduce the concentration and intensification of agriculture.
Q. How does agricultural concentration affect farmers and consumers?
A. These companies want us to think that they are Smithfield “Farm,” and that they are taking care of their pigs. But they control the breeding facilities and production, they own feed mills and slaughterhouses. They are producing huge amounts of meat, and so the price stays low, but you either play their game or you have to make your own alternative industry from start to finish. At one of the Department of Justice workshops, a chicken farmer was saying that a bucket of fried chicken in his area costs $26.95, and he gets $0.30 for growing the chickens that went into the bucket. And in the meantime the CEOs of Purdue, Tyson, and KFC are making millions.
Q. Farmers often feel attacked when criticism is laid on the industry. Do you have any ideas for how to remedy this?