Bucking the CAFO tax: A plea for conscientious objection

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.

9 Responsesto “Bucking the CAFO tax: A plea for conscientious objection”

  1. Debs says:

    This is great information.  I also appreciate the call to get involved on the legislative level. That’s just as much about personal responsibility as changing eating habits.
    <a href=”http://food.gofrolic.org”>Food Is Love</a>

  2. Support grass-fed beef like the kind available at my friend’s site: http://www.sunprairiebeef.com He ships anywhere in the U.S.!

  3. N. & J. says:

    Like many other people I’ve spent some time trying to figure out how to get big companies and corporations on the green bandwagon and I never thought of the simplest one. If we make them pay ALL the costs associated with what they produce they will find a way to do it generating less waste and toxins and we can take the taxpayers money and put into programs that will truly benefit the people.

  4. Peter Maier says:

    While indeed EPA blames farmers for the ‘nutrient’ pollution impacting our rivers and causing dead zones, it never mentioned that the same type of nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste in municipal sewage does not require treatment and that rivers still are allowed to be used as giant urinals.
    All, because of a faulty applied pollution test, which still makes it impossible to evaluate the real treatment f sewage treatment plants and what their effluent waste loadings are on receiving water bodies. Shouldn’t we first start cleaning up after ourselves?
    Want to know more visit http://www.petermaier.net

  5. Elanor says:

    No, not first. In tandem, sure. But whatever you may think of the efficacy of human waste treatment, in my opinion, CAFOs are a bigger problem both in volume and in risk level. CAFOs generate an estimated 500 billion tons of waste each year, which is three times the volume of waste generated by humans in the U.S. While human waste enters a treatment plant, CAFO waste is released untreated into the environment. And nutrient pollution isn’t the half of it: CAFO waste contains antibiotics, heavy metals, and pathogens including E.coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium, and giardia.

    It’s become increasingly obvious that waste treatment generally isn’t up to par (hello, pharmaceuticals in our drinking water), but the regulation of CAFO waste is centuries behind the human system.

  6. Peter Maier says:

    First sewage treatment was developed only ‘One’ century ago, mainly to prevent the nuisance (odors and visual) problems and prior to that it was used in the agriculture as a natural fertilizer.
    These objectives were partly achieved, but when in the sixties the public became environmental aware, other environmental impacts became important. Unfortunately when EPA implemented the CWA it used the same old technology, as now commonly applied and used a worldwide incorrect applied pollution test incorrectly. This caused all types of problems, among them that prior to 1984 sewage treatment plants with NPDES permits would violate their permits and actually penalized for treating the sewage better as was required by their permits. Although EPA acknowledged these problems in 1984, it did not correct this essential test and we still do not know how well sewage is treated. EPA lowered the goal of the Act from 100% treatment to a measly 35% treatment, without even telling Congress.
    Also because of this test, we were not able to compare the different sewage treatment process, but if we had tested properly we also would have found out that certain simple sewage treatment processes, not only perform much better, but also are much less expensive to built and operate than what we still are building
    That opened the question (and gives the reason why EPA still reject correcting this test) why we still have to drive a YGO, while for less money and with much better mileage we can drive a Beemer?  

    The CWA, the second largest federally funded public works program, sadly failed due to a faulty test and it is the main reason why ‘nitrogenous’ pollution is ignored in all our environmental programs. Did you know that 35% of the reactive nitrogen in the proteins in your body originates from synthesized fertilizer and that nutrient enrichment of our biosphere not only causes climate change, changes in biodiversity, dead zones in large water bodies but also forest fires (due to green rain).
    So while synthesized fertilizer was a real blessing to feed humans, its use will become a major challenge for the next millennium.

  7. Christian Berger says:

    FYI, here is the website for the House Committee on Agriculture.


    Having spent a fair amount of time on Capitol Hill, I know that members of Congress treat calls and correspondence from constituents and non-constituents alike as reflections of the opinions of a much broader group. Chairman Peterson and his staff would certainly want to know of the opinions of concerned citizens who read blogs like Ethicurean.

    The horror of this story is that as taxpayers we are inextricably tied to CAFOs and to the food industry. The solution begins not only with fundamentally changing our consumption, but also with dramatically increasing our civic participation.

    As for the consumption bit, I believe all evidence demonstrates that humans would be healthier in virtually every way if we eliminated animals (and of course) denatured foods from our diet. Of course, the total elimination of the global meat industry would drastically reduce environmental stresses contributing to the changing climate, which ultimately, contributes to many types of human suffering.


    Christian Berger

  8. Judy says:

    What mind blowing numbers are being thrown around!  I support no CAFO’s when feeding my family and I think that if more people did the same there could genuinely be an impact.  I loved this post!

  9. H.A. Page says:

    Thank you for all of these links. We all need to act and your information, direction and those of your readers give a way to do so. I am linking to you in a post on the subject on 5/12 and will help promote activism in this area.