A Deeper Look at CAFOs, April 07 | A Deeper Look at CAFOs


As little as ten years ago, a drive through the Iowa countryside would reveal a common sight: hogs rooting in pastures that were dotted with farrowing A-huts. Take that same drive now and you’ll find empty pastureland sporting long, metallic, odorous barns crammed full of hogs that never see the light of day.

Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are a way of life now in much of the United States. It’s a startling fact that since 1915, the total number of hogs bred each year remains at about 60 million, yet the number of hog farmers has dropped 72%. More hogs are now in the hands of fewer, mostly industrialized, farmers.

There has been much attention on the health and environmental impacts of CAFOs, but their deleterious effects extend to the very fabric of rural life. Dr. Kendall Thu, a cultural anthropologist and professor from Northern Illinois University, has extensively researched the relationships between industrialized food systems, rural social dynamics, public health, and the environment. In February 2007 he presented “Health Issues Related to CAFOs” at the February annual meeting held by Jefferson County Farmers and Neighbors (JFAN), a nonprofit educational foundation working to control the unchecked proliferation of CAFOs in the county.

With a 36-page curriculum vita, Dr. Thu has served as President of the Culture and Agriculture Section of the American Anthropological Association, Executive Board Member of the Central States Anthropological Society, and is a Fellow in the Society for Applied Anthropology.

Dr. Thu continued his discussion with The Source recently, shedding light on the socio-economic effects of industrial farming and how people can mobilize to improve the agricultural landscape.

DIANE COMEY: A large body of research exists on the negative health impacts of CAFO’s on farm workers and residents living in close vicinity to these buildings. How can we use this information to make substantive changes to this method of farming?

DR. KENDALL THU: A number of things have to happen. The collective power of the food industry is only second to the pharmaceutical industry in sheer economic might. This incredibly powerful political and economic force is largely responsible for the federal policy shaping the food industry.

The only realistic solution is a social revolution within the food movement. The research community is channeling information to groups like JFAN all over the country. Beyond that, organizations focusing on CAFOs need to link with other organizations that are working on others pieces of the puzzle such as antibiotic resistance, childhood obesity, and ground and surface water quality, and with the sustainable and organic communities that are developing alternatives. That’s the only way to coalesce the kind of political capital that would make a dent in this large food industry force.

When I go to communities like Fairfield, I meet a lot of good, committed people that can do it. I don’t think they realize the power and opportunities they have. As these organizations expand and interconnect, the sky is the limit.

Citizens need to put pressure on elected leaders and make CAFOs an issue during political campaigns. It’s hard to be successful with one-issue campaigns, but when you put together all the environmental, health, and socio-economic problems associated with CAFOs, it seems you can address this problem from the perspective of many issues. Do you think this is a feasible way to go?

I think it is essential. It’s important to fight CAFOs for CAFO issues, but as an end unto itself, it’s limiting in terms of what is needed to make the necessary shift in the overall food system.

The food system is at the foundation of any society. The way you grow, get, and distribute food is fundamentally formative in the way a culture is shaped. If you are going to address issues of equity, justice, and the environment, you can’t adequately do that without going to the core of what a society is anchored in, and that’s the food system.

It’s important to understand how the CAFO issue is a manifestation of the primary flaws of the food system underlying all sorts of injustices and inequities. This includes human health, children’s health, air quality, water quality, and racial injustice. We need to see how this broad swath of issues interlink so we can bring the necessary parties together to initiate change.

We have allowed our food to become industrialized. What does this say about us as a society?

It says we’ve been boondoggled. Children are indoctrinated into the food system by viewing about 10,000 food ads every year, of which 90-95% promote breakfast cereal, pop, and other sugar-laced food products. Kids recognize Ronald McDonald more than political leaders.

The food industry is very good at what it does, and we need to provide an antidote to it. Through efforts like JFAN‘s, you pierce through the veneer of rhetoric and begin to make people realize what is happening. It’s very rewarding to me to find people, especially women who are leaders in rural communities, begin to question not only what is happening with CAFOs, but how they are part of a wider set of problems. They’re becoming critically aware of these other challenges.

There are obvious socio-economic impacts of CAFOs: loss of family farms, depressed land values, loss of population. What are some of the less obvious effects?

The family farm tradition has produced a generation of citizens who built their identity and neighborhood relationships upon reciprocity. Traditional farmers need to have skills, to be multi-talented jack-of-all-trades because they have to attend to all the problems that crop up on a farm.

With the advent of CAFOs, you find a dumbing down of the population. People are now given prescriptions for how to produce food. I know from experience that corporations purposely hire CAFO workers who don’t know anything about farming because they don’t want farm knowledge interfering with their cookie-cutter approach to producing meat. We are losing the character of farmers that used to exist a generation ago, and we are also losing a generation of very talented people whose skills aren’t being passed on.

Since our lives are so interconnected, the effects of factory farming are not just limited to rural communities. How does the loss of rural vitality affect our country as a whole?

It erodes the basic democratic principles by which we should be operating. I sometimes give a speech, reciting the words of Joseph Stalin who described the program of collective farms – highly technologically sophisticated farms – in the USSR. I ask audiences around the US, ‘Isn’t this the program we’ve been following?’ And they say, yes, it looks exactly like what’s happening with CAFOs.

When an organization like JFAN is trying to make changes in a local area, and they’re up against political forces in Des Moines and, ultimately, in Washington, DC, they’re witnessing a loss of control, a loss of the democratic process, the foundation that drew immigrants here in the first place.

Many years ago I was on a panel discussion in Creston, Iowa discussing what should be done in the hog industry. One of the panel members, an attorney for some of the large hog operations in Iowa, got up and gave the fundamental industry pitch: you can’t give counties local control because you would have 99 different recipes of rules, spelling disaster for the industry because they wouldn’t know what to expect.

Right after he gave that speech, I looked right out at the audience and replied, “You know what he just said to you? He said he doesn’t trust you.”

The democratic process is built upon trusting people to make the right decisions about their community. What’s more antidemocratic than taking away people’s rights then saying you can’t be trusted?

As a child growing up in suburbia, I heard teachers reverently speak of farmers and agriculture as the foundation of our country. Since then we’ve experienced a devaluing and degrading of the family farm tradition and an acceptance of the industrial approach to farming. Why do you think our society has allowed this to happen?

It is a consequence of unfettered capitalism and greed.

The hallowed position farmers once held, and still hold in many people’s eyes, is actually manifested in a number of state and federal laws that allow farmers privileged places. Part of what is happening, though, is that the larger industrial producers are co-opting that veil of sanctity to deflect criticism, showcasing themselves as being that kind of farmer when they are not.

Sometimes it is very hard for the general public to make the distinction between that traditional farm character and the kind of farming that is practiced today. It’s easier for people living in rural areas to recognize the difference when they see a CAFO coming up. Gaining awareness and seeing how the pieces fit together on this scale takes time.

I once interviewed a young man from a family of farmers who wanted to stay in farming. He felt a CAFO gave him the financial opportunity to do so since he couldn’t afford the whole package of hogs, buildings, equipment, feed, and land on his own. It seems a lot of farmers these days feel there is no other recourse. How can we change this situation?

First, we can’t demonize many of these producers who are building CAFO’s because they feel there aren’t any other options. They’re not the Darth Vaders of the rural landscape. They just doing what they think they need to do to survive, and that’s understandable.

But the situation is a travesty. We need to figure out why it is they don’t have options and alternatives and go after the essential root of the problem. We need to help provide solutions so people against CAFOs can work with these producers, saying “We don’t want your facility in our neighborhood, but our group will assist you in finding alternatives through research. We’ll help you lobby the state legislature and land grants to get them to spend more time and money developing community acceptable farm practices. This way you will have options and will no longer be boxed in as we know you are.” Recognizing the position of the producers is very important.

Then the Good Neighbor Guidelines JFAN put together are a good first step?

I think it is an excellent strategy.

When people complain about manure lagoons and spills, the pork industry also claims that traditional hog farming creates runoff into streams and ponds, and that constitutes a health hazard, as well. To what degree is that true compared to the amount of pollution CAFOs produce?

You can’t immunize all family farmers who pasture their livestock because they are also part of the problem. Runoff from pastures into drainage ditches, tie lines, and so forth, is an issue.

But the scale of the large operations, and the extent to which they are separated from the land base, are the reasons the Federal EPA decided that agriculture can’t be looked upon as a nonpoint source (pollution which can’t be traced to a single origin) anymore. Factory farms are basically industries producing volumes of liquid manure on a scale not seen before.

In addition, CAFOs divorce livestock production from a land-base that can’t absorb these nutrients at appropriate rates. In [February’s JFAN meeting], a 300-head finishing operator described how he reintegrates all of his manure back into his cropland. But, for the most part, we are divorcing that process. So CAFOs create huge nutrient imbalances, and the manure becomes a waste byproduct rather than a fertilizer.

The largest facility is in southern Utah. They have a 40,000- to 50,000-sow operation, and all the nutrients have to be shipped out because they don’t have any cropland and only some pastureland. So they use evaporative treatment centers, meaning it goes up in the air and is deposited downwind. It doesn’t make any sense from an ecological standpoint.

The move toward organic foods is coming slowly, but CAFOs are being built much more quickly. Are we at a point of no return? Or, like global warming, do we still have a little window of time to make a shift?

CAFOs are set up for short-term production and are not designed to last a long time. It wouldn’t take long for them to disappear if that was the will of the people.

CAFOs are also corporate ventures. If a corporation decides it’s not making enough money to continue in the pork production business and changes direction, what’s to protect the farmer from losing the company’s support and, ultimately, his whole investment?

Unless you get legislation passed that provides for a contractor producer’s bill of rights, there is nothing that precludes a corporation from not renewing a farmer’s contract. One of the problems a CAFO owner can face is that a structure built for one company may not meet the specifications of another company, so he can’t shop around for contracts.

Corporations also can change the contracts during the tenure of the agreement. For example, I interviewed regional managers after they left one corporation, who explained how their company turned the screws on the producers to make it more difficult for them to make money. We know that’s happened in the poultry industry as well.

It strikes me that we really haven’t gotten that far away from feudalism and sharecropping. CAFOs seem to be just another form of these systems.

The only difference is that European feudalism, in part, led to immigration to this country. There‘s no place for farmers to go now unless we ship them to another planet. They can go to urban areas and find jobs, but there is no escape now.

One might assume awareness of CAFO issues is livelier in rural and progressive communities rather than most urban and suburban areas, which house a larger percentage of the country’s population. With urban dwellers less connected to where their food originates, how do you educate consumers and initiate change on such a large scale?

We’ve faced this question in Illinois and found that we were mistaken in assuming how interested and desirous urbanites were to have fresh, locally grown organic food. There is a lot of interest in Chicago to the extent that its citizens and legislators have been leaders in helping us create a movement to change the rural areas. They want fresh food for schools and minority communities, and they’re interested in urban farms.

You still have to educate, but it turns out that urbanites are some of the leaders. Farmers represent less than 2% of the population, and in the case of Illinois, roughly 60 to 65% of legislators are in urban areas. So if you’re going to initiate change, you have to work where the power base is.

If the food industry believes its own mantra, that consumer demand is everything, if urbanites demand organic food, the industry is going to have to change accordingly.