Not all Meat is Created Equal - Part 02

Parker Hughes
Oct 21, 2020

What is Industrial Animal Agriculture?

In 1976, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defined animal feed operations (AFOs), of which there are now nearly half-a-million, as agricultural enterprises where animals are kept and raised in one small lot or facility that does not have pasture for at least 45 days per year. 

A centralized animal feeding operations (CAFO) is a subset of AFO that is distinguished by its large density of animals (more than 1,000 livestock units), and its significant contribution to pollution. Even with gaps in data about the size and locations of CAFOS (Figure 1), in 2012, the EPA estimated that there were at least 17,000 industrial feed operations in at least 40 states. 

The two most common types of CAFOs are:

  1. Factory farms - Livestock are housed in buildings that they seldom leave; animal urine and feces fall from cages through slatted floors into holding troughs, where it is periodically transferred from the building into lagoons the size of football fields. 
  2. Feedlots - Livestock are kept in outdoor enclosures; waste accumulates on the ground and is disposed of in nearby ditches and streams.
Figure 1: Transparency of CAFO data. Taken from

Because the brutality of industrial food production is invisible to us, consumers can set aside any misgivings they might have about animal treatment because they are hidden, and focus on what is revealed: the convenient product and its low price point. However, turning meat, which has long been considered a luxury item, into a cheap commodity has not come without deleterious effects on the wellbeing of livestock, agroecosystems, and people.

Impacts on Animal Welfare

Industrial feedlots consider livestock as part of a mechanical process that seeks to maximize production and minimize input costs. In Rethinking the Meat Guzzler, Mark Bittman goes as far as to say that CAFOs should be seen as “growing meat” since it is inaccurate to use the word “raising” when applied to animals in factory farms. This profit-centric production method uses inhumane practices that “Ag-Gag” bills attempt to bar from mainstream media.

  • 6 to 10 hens are stored in a single battery cage, affording each chicken less than a single sheet of paper of space.
  • Pregnant sows are crammed in farrowing crates with an attached crate for their piglets.
  • Swine are squeezed into gestation crates too tight for them to turn around.

The lack of activity paired with unsanitary conditions compromises animals’ immune systems and perpetuates diets consisting of feed-additives. By 2015, 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. were used for animal agriculture. CAFOs have openly embraced growth-promoting antibiotics (GPAs) to help fight livestock infection and quickly fatten cattle for slaughter. Although, production efficiency is not always synonymous with cost reduction. A 2007 study published in Public Health Reports, found that the net effect of using GPAs was a lost value of $0.0093 per chicken or 0.45 percent of the total cost. The study utilized data published by the Perdue company, the fourth-largest poultry producer in the U.S.

It is worth mentioning that factory-farmed animals are predisposed to severe health issues including but not limited to:

  • Acidosis - A digestive disorder perpetuated by ongoing attempts to improve the efficiency of beef production by feeding high grain, low roughage diets. 
  • Dust pneumonia - During the hot and dry seasons, “dust fogs” build up in feedlots that cause toxic bacteria to enter animals’ lungs, resulting in respiratory ailments.
  • Feedlot polio - This disease, which is caused by a B vitamin deficiency, is associated with high grain feeding and occurs after switching cattle to their “finishing” diets. 
  • Heat stressWhen the temperature rises over 80 degrees °F, cattle begin to exhibit signs of heat stress, which can lead to respiratory, fertility and mobility problems
  • Liver abscesses - Approximately 12 to 32 percent of feedlot cattle develop liver abscesses, which are associated with rumen acidosis caused by carbohydrate overload. 
  • Feedlot Bloat - Grain-based feeding catalyzes abnormal rumen function in which stable foam forms and impairs gas release from digestion.

Impacts on the Environment

In 2019, U.S. consumers ate 27.3 billion pounds of beef. To satisfy America’s taste for meat, massive amounts of land are allocated towards cultivating commodity crops - corn, sorghum, barley, soybean, and oats - that fuel CAFOs. The 2018 Farm Bill even outlines programs that offer farmers financial incentives and insurances to grow low-margin grains in monoculture systems. Consequently, the extractive food system we now have is less the result of the free market and more a direct result of “agricultural and antitrust policies” that need to be reformed. In 2019, the USDA reported that 91.7 million acres of corn are planted every year and roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn is used as feed for livestock. (Corn accounts for more than 95 percent of total feed grain production.)

The most pressing environmental impacts associated with CAFOs stem from the amount of waste they generate; such factories produce anywhere from 2,800 tons to more than 1.6 million tons of manure annually. Six types of contaminants are commonly found in livestock feces:

  1. Nutrients - nitrogen and phosphorus
  2. Pathogens - E. coli and cryptosporidium
  3. Synthetic pesticides - fertilizers and herbicides
  4. Veterinary pharmaceuticals - antibiotics and anthelmintics
  5. Heavy metals - copper sulfate and zinc
  6. Natural hormones - estrogens and androgens

Factory farms can produce more than one and a half times the waste than some U.S. cities. Yet, many CAFOs do not grow their own feed and therefore cannot utilize the manure they produce as fertilizer. Instead, ground application of untreated feces is a common disposal method due to its low cost. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), when factory farms apply manure too frequently or in too large a quantity to an area, nutrient runoff seeps into the soil, groundwater, and surface water. To compound the situation, before waste is applied to land, it is often stored on-site in lagoons, which are prone to overflows, leaks, and spills (Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1: An overflowing CAFO lagoon in eastern North Carolina. Taken from

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd caused 46 hog lagoons in North Carolina to spill their contents. Over ten years later, the National Institutes of Health found that 40 percent of samples still exceeded federal water quality guidelines for E. coli; high concentrations of fecal bacteria in surface waters (rivers and creeks) persisted both upstream and downstream from the CAFOs.

Impacts on Human Health

Not only are ecosystems degraded by CAFOs, but agricultural workers and local communities are put at risk of exposure to harmful pathogens - including ammonia and methane. It has been found that residents living in close proximity to factory farms experience adverse health conditions ranging from asthma to birth defects and miscarriages. A 2018 study published in the North Carolina Medical Journal discovered that people living near hog CAFOs - who are chronically exposed to contaminants from land-applied waste and airborne emissions - had lower life expectancies due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia.

CAFOs also pass on health risks to unassuming consumers. As aforementioned, to combat diseases caused by idleness and high acidity in their digestive tracks, livestock are pumped with GPAs, which contribute to the contamination of flocks and food products by pathogenic bacteria - e.g., campylobacter, salmonella, and enterococcus. Regularly consuming industrially produced animal products has been shown to transform a healthy human gut microbiome, which is composed of over 100 trillion microbes, into a reservoir of antibiotic-resistant organisms. In 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) came out with a press statement urging the food industry to stop using GPAs.

By 2019, after little progress had been made, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fungi now cause more than 2.8 million human infections each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result. In 2020, after numerous reports of the negative externalities associated with factory farming, Senator Elizabeth Warren joined Senator Cory Booker to co-sponsor the Farm System Reform Act; the bill calls for an immediate moratorium on the construction of all large CAFOs and outlines a plan to shut down existing CAFOs by 2040. In order to protect the US food supply, policy makers must double down on propagating smaller, more resilient agricultural systems that can withstand the force of a global pandemic.

Stay tuned for Part 03 coming soon! In the meantime, please consider subscribing to The Regeneration Weekly. We scour the web to harvest a fresh serving of regenerative agriculture news, insights, and resources. Delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Parker Hughes
Associate at Soilworks Natural Capital
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