I am sitting in a swanky conference center on the outskirts of Phoenix, a city that may be one of our country's least sustainable, where the water is as scarce as the SUVs and air conditioners are numerous. But for all the shortcomings of developers who thought it would be a great idea to build a sprawling concrete population center in the middle of the desert, there's one thing I can say for them: at least they didn't bring in a bunch of CAFOs.
Arizona has one of the smallest livestock populations of any state in the nation, according to the USDA. With the release of the Pew Center's long-awaited report [PDF] on the impacts of CAFO production, I have to say that I'm very glad for that. Other states, however, are not so lucky: Iowa houses nearly 19 million hogs, while North Carolina houses nearly 11 million. California has 1.9 million dairy cows, and Wisconsin has 1.2 million. Chickens in Georgia laid 1.8 billion eggs last year, a number that absolutely boggles the mind.
The Pew report maps the development of the industrial livestock production system, a system that's taken hold almost as quickly as the internet -- but spam and those terrible porn pop-up windows are nothing compared to the impacts of CAFOs. The authors of the report were apparently under immense pressure from agribusiness interests to water down their message, but it looks like they turned their cheeks and kept the message pretty strong. They find that antibiotic use in CAFOs is driving growth in antibiotic-resistant human illnesses; that E.coli and other pathogens spread quickly among animals when they're packed tightly together, and that their susceptibility to illness is amplified by the fact that they're being fed stuff that they wouldn't naturally eat; and that workers and rural communities are on the front lines when it comes to illness from air and water contamination and odor.
The report doesn't shirk on the corporate-power angle either (though it does fail to call out specific companies -- unfortunate, but I suppose not unexpected). The preface draws a parallel between the military industrial complex and a new agri-industrial complex that has lobbied for huge direct and indirect subsidies (which are explored in the UCS report that came out last week) to keep themselves afloat. The complex drives rural poverty by siphoning off profits and leaving communities to clean up the mess. The report concludes that "the social and economic well-being of rural communities benefits from larger numbers of farmers rather than fewer farms that produce increased volumes" (or as someone at the conference put more bluntly, "How could anyone believe you could get economic development through a system whose entire purpose is to reduce the number of jobs in the industry?").
Local ownership of smaller livestock operations holds the promise of real economic development. A contract from an agribusiness giant does not. Strong anti-trust regulations, contract reform, and other competition policies are two of the recommendations of the commission, but protection of the right to organize was conspicuously absent -- a huge shame given Smithfield's record.
There are a lot of other recommendations I won't cover here. I'd suggest reading the report and taking a look at the coverage in the Washington Post. My takehome from the one-two punch of the UCS and Pew reports was simply this: the political power of agribusinesses is what got us here. It will take policy change -- and a whole lot of grassroots power-building -- to get us out. We'll see next week how well the livestock provisions fared in the Farm Bill. Meanwhile, state and local arenas are great places to start building alternatives, as we've seen in Woodbury county, Iowa and elsewhere around the nation. What's happening policy-wise in your community?
Photo courtesy of factoryfarm.org