Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), sometimes referred to as factory farms, are incredibly widespread throughout the developed world, especially in the United States. These operations are incredibly harmful to the animals, the workers, and the environment. But why is this?
Firstly, it is important to define what a CAFO is. A CAFO is an industrial-scale livestock operation. More specifically, it is an intensive animal feeding operation in which over 1,000 pounds of "live" animal weight are confined for over 45 days a year in an area without vegetation. Basically, a ton of animals are crammed into a small space for long periods of time. This is done because it is very cost-effective, as CAFOs can produce a lot of food with few resources or land. There are many different sizes of CAFOs, meaning one can house anywhere from hundreds to millions of animals. Also, CAFOs can house animals to be consumed, or they can house animals for their products, like dairy cows or egg hens.
There are many problems with confining large numbers of animals into small spaces for long periods of time. Firstly, waste management is almost impossible. The amount of urine and feces from even the smallest CAFO is around the same as the urine and feces produced by 16,000 humans. In some CAFOs, animals have to stand in piles of their own feces. This unsanitary environment is harmful to the animals and the workers in the CAFOs, and it can also cause toxic air and water pollution that can contaminate local ecosystems and population centers. This closeness can also cause lower muscle mass, higher stress levels, and higher levels of aggressiveness among the animals. Additionally, animals are usually fed food pellets made of corn, wheat, and soy, which are not traditionally in these animals’ diets and can further exacerbate these problems. Being packed so tightly together also results in a lack of veterinary care, which can turn CAFOs into breeding grounds for disease and bacteria. Because of this, unprescribed antibiotics are given to these animals in huge quantities, which breeds resistance within the bacteria and viruses, making the problem worse in the future. Around 80% of all antibiotics in the US are given to farm animals.
Artificial growth hormones are also given to these animals alongside antibiotics, which further worsen the lives of these animals. While artificial hormones are prohibited in chicken and pork by the USDA, they are still used in cows. These hormones force cattle to make more milk or gain weight faster, further worsening their horrible lives.
The production process for CAFOs is also very harmful. CAFOs prioritize efficiency over safety, which brings more adverse consequences. In order to speed up production, animal products are not always handled properly, which can cause contaminated products to make their way through the food system. Also, worker injuries by machines are very high in CAFOs because they are trying to process foods faster than what is safe.
For those who say that it doesn’t matter what we do to these animals since they are going to die anyway, I ask, if they are already going to their deaths, why we need to torture them? Also, it is important to remember that CAFOs can house animals that will not be killed for consumption and instead provide goods like eggs and milk and that CAFOs have harmful effects on the workers as well as the surrounding area.
You may be asking, what can you do? Firstly, going vegan or vegetarian makes it easy to avoid CAFOs altogether, though I realize that many people are not willing to do this. If you continue to consume animal products, check to see where they are coming from. If you look for things like grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chickens, organic foods, and more, you can generally be sure that it is coming from a good source. That being said, many of these terms can be convoluted (more on this in my next blog), so the more research you do, the better.