Here’s a number to knock you out of that mid-day stupor: every year, taxpayers shell out between $7.1 billion and $8.2 billion to subsidize or clean up after our nation’s 9,900 confined animal feeding operations. That’s the finding of “CAFOs Uncovered,” a new report released earlier today by the Union of Concerned Scientists. That amount, for comparison’s sake, is nearly 400 times larger than the Farm Bill proposal for new funding for organic research and extension.
That’s not it, either: author Doug Gurian-Sherman, a UCS senior scientist, estimates that another $4.1 billion in taxpayer dollars has been spent over the years to deal with leaking manure storage facilities. Rural communities get an additional kick in the keyster since CAFOs, spewing odor and flies, have reduced rural property values by — get this — an estimated total of $26 billion. And in a final blow, Gurian-Sherman emphasizes that if the government actually tried to “adequately” manage the vast amount of CAFO waste, as opposed to — well, who knows what they’re doing now, but it’s certainly not adequate — “the figure would undoubtedly be much higher.”
It’s time to talk about priorities.
The UCS report takes on the daunting task of computing the sum total of direct subsidies to CAFOs — money they receive through federal channels like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which shares the cost of constructing manure lagoons and other activities — and indirect subsidies. The latter category is a bit hard to grasp, but that’s how CAFOs like it. The idea is that there are huge costs associated with the way CAFOs do business that the operations themselves don’t actually pay. When manure spills out of a lagoon into surface water or leaches into groundwater and that water has to be treated in order for people to drink it, who pays for treatment? The local water district, with taxpayer dollars. EQIP picks up the tab to reinforce the lagoon.
When CAFOs feed their animals antibiotics to keep them from getting sick — 70% of antibiotics used in the U.S., in fact, are used on animals — and resistant bacteria begin to breed as a consequence, and human antibiotics stop working, who pays? People who get sick and don’t get well — and the public health system, with taxpayer dollars.
And when you can’t sell your house because an 18,000 head hog CAFO moved in next door, you can bet the CAFO’s not going to offer to compensate you for your hardship.
These are all real costs — but they don’t affect CAFOs’ bottom lines. There are other costs that the UCS report touches on as well. Farmers take a beating when they’re squeezed between big companies selling them inputs and bigger companies buying their feed at (until recently) extremely low prices to funnel it into the industrial livestock complex. Small livestock producers find that they can’t get their animals into a slaughter facility because the big plants only take tractor-trailer loads of animals — so they can’t sell their meat.
Even the families that manage CAFOs may find themselves screwed by the contracts they sign with companies like Smithfield and Cargill, which force them to take out huge loans to build the barns, manage manure, and get rid of dead animals, and all they get in return is a short-term guarantee that someone will buy their product until it becomes cheaper to source it from Poland.
In the interest of full disclosure, I helped with some of the research for this report, so its findings are understandably close to my heart. But I like them for another reason, too. Gurian-Sherman concludes that the driving force behind the growth of CAFOs is not the invisible hand of the market; it’s anything but. Farm policy has a massive and direct impact on whether or not CAFOs can break even. Indeed, if taxpayers, homeowners, farmers, and public services weren’t footing the bill for so many of these costs, CAFOs would most likely be out of business.
In other words, the Farm Bill matters.
This report is, at its core, about a crisis in policymaking. What we have right now are lax regulations that are used as excuses to throw more money at the operations that drove voters to fight for regulations in the first place. What we need, says Gurian-Sherman, are an end to direct subsidies for CAFOs through EQIP; strict environmental regulations on air and water pollution from CAFOs and strong enforcement of anti-trust laws; fair prices for farmers; better access to slaughterhouses for small livestock producers; and a whole lot of money for research and education on alternative production methods (including hoop houses, an innovative and cost-effective model being developed by Mark Honeyman and others at Iowa State, and pasture-based operations). We need a general recognition that CAFOs aren’t a public good worthy of public financing. They’re a public outrage.
To most of us, participating in the policy process seems much more daunting than buying a different kind of meat at the grocery store, or not buying it (though, for the record, that’s important too). It can seem a lot like trying to jump on a roller coaster while it speeds by on its way to the Loop of Death. A good way to start feeling more in control of this process is to get on some lists that can advise you on when and how to act. As always, I’ll recommend the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Campaign for Farm Bill alerts, but there are lots of state- and issue-specific organizations out there too: the Land Stewardship Project for environmental and new farmer issues, particularly in the Midwest; the Organic Farming Research Foundation for tips on supporting organic systems; Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement for CAFO issues; RAFI-USA for economic and labor issues. And that’s just the beginning.
In the name of hopefulness, I thought I’d leave you with a few pictures from one of those alternative livestock operations, this one owned by a farmer in Iowa who raises pigs for Niman Ranch. It’s time for fewer CAFOs and more of these.
First photo from factoryfarm.org; others by me. The title of this post refers to the Quaker tradition of refusing to pay the share of one’s personal income taxes that go to fund war as an act of conscientious objection.