Confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs are a type of factory farming. Like many other oxymorons – plastic glasses, working holiday, unbiased opinion, virtual reality, original copies – there are existential problems with the idea of factory farming. They can be dangerous to both the environment and the animals, and may not be particularly good for the consumer either.
The basic idea of a CAFO is to keep as many animals as can managed in as small an area as possible and feed them until they are ready to butcher. It is associated with cattle raising but also used for chickens, ducks, turkeys, swine and even horses.
The concept of the CAFO was devised as a way of increasing the efficiency of a farm. A farmer can produce more beef (for example) more quickly and ostensibly at a lower cost via a CAFO than via a traditional livestock raising method, which would allow the animal to spend at least part of its life out to pasture.
According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Web site, there are seven medium-sized (200-700 animals) and three large (more than 700 animals) CAFOs in Tompkins County heavily concentrated in the north and east of the county. In neighboring southern Cayuga County there are five medium and nine large operations. In the middle of Seneca County there three medium and two large, in northern Tioga (that is, in the Cayuga Lake drainage) there are two medium and 1 large, and in Schuyler County five medium-sized CAFOs. Of the 611 factory farms in New York state, about 37 of them are within an hour of Ithaca.
To put it bluntly, there are better ways of raising animals. The idea of driving the cost of meat down is linked to the idea that it is necessary to a healthful diet to eat a lot of it all the time. Not so.
Because the animals live in such close proximity to one another and, all too often, a muddy, manure-fouled morass, they are subject to disease and are therefore frequently dosed with antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. A growing body of research suggests that eating meat laced with this stuff is simply not good for you. Recently, video footage at Westland Hallmark Meat Company showed that sometimes it isn’t very good for cows either.
When you keep hundreds or thousands of animals in a confined area and feed them, they defecate in a confined area. What was formerly regarded as a “non-point source” of pollution becomes something more like a point source. When manure is generated by grazing cows it is spread over acres onto vegetation that ideally absorbs the nitrogen and phosphorus compounds in it before it runs off into streams. Coliform bacteria are also more likely to be less concentrated. The Community Science Institute recently announced that much of the phosphorus overloading the southern portion of Cayuga Lake is running off of agricultural land into Fall Creek. If CAFOs are part of the problem (something that can be investigated), then they are a less mandatory part of the landscape than sewage treatment plants, another phosphorus source.
CAFOs are not the only profitable way to raise animals. It is becoming more and more obvious that consumers are willing to pay the additional money to buy the meat of grass-fed (not even necessarily organic) livestock. Because of the higher cost you are likely to eat less of it, less often and live a healthier existence. We will also not have to pay all the “hidden” costs of CAFO-raised meat: the environmental remediation and the health-care expenses, both obvious ones – obesity and cholesterol problems – and the murkier ones – the incompletely understood effects on human health of animal growth hormones, antibiotics and other supplements.
Let’s use the land as if it were land, not just a factory floor.