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Giant livestock farms that are known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs house thousands of cows, chickens or pigs and produce staggering amounts of animal manure. The way these wastes are stored and used has profound effects on human health and the environment.

A giant factory farm in North Carolina

A giant factory farm in North Carolina; the brown rectangle at left is a waste lagoon.

On most factory farms, animals are crowded into relatively small areas; their manure and urine are funneled into massive waste lagoons. These cesspools often break, leak or overflow, sending dangerous microbes, nitrate pollution and drug-resistant bacteria into water supplies. Factory-farm lagoons also emit toxic gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane. What's more, the farms often spray the manure onto land, ostensibly as fertilizer -- these "sprayfields" bring still more of these harmful substances into our air and water.

Yet in spite of the huge amounts of animal wastes that factory farms produce, they have largely escaped pollution regulations; loopholes in the law and weak enforcement share the blame. NRDC has fought, and won, a number of courtroom battles over the years to force the federal government to deal with the problem of factory farms, but more protections are needed to adequately protect public health and the environment from CAFO pollution.

Threats to Human Health

People who live near or work at factory farms breathe in hundreds of gases, which are formed as manure decomposes. The stench can be unbearable, but worse still, the gases contain many harmful chemicals. For instance, one gas released by the lagoons, hydrogen sulfide, is dangerous even at low levels. Its effects -- which are irreversible -- range from sore throat to seizures, comas and even death. Other health effects associated with the gases from factory farms include headaches, shortness of breath, wheezing, excessive coughing and diarrhea.

Animal waste also contaminates drinking water supplies. For example, nitrates often seep from lagoons and sprayfields into groundwater. Drinking water contaminated with nitrates can increase the risk of blue baby syndrome, which can cause deaths in infants. High levels of nitrates in drinking water near hog factories have also been linked to spontaneous abortions. Several disease outbreaks related to drinking water have been traced to bacteria and viruses from waste.

On top of this, the widespread use of antibiotics also poses dangers. Large-scale animal factories often give animals antibiotics to promote growth, or to compensate for illness resulting from crowded conditions. These antibiotics are entering the environment and the food chain, contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and making it harder to treat human diseases.

Threats to the Natural Environment

The natural environment also suffers in many ways from factory-farming practices. Sometimes the damage is sudden and catastrophic, as when a ruptured lagoon causes a massive fish kill. At other times, it is cumulative -- for example, when manure is repeatedly overapplied, it runs off the land and accumulates as nutrient pollution in waterways.

Either way, the effects are severe. For instance, water quality across the country is threatened by phosphorus and nitrogen, two nutrients present in animal wastes. In excessive amounts, nutrients often cause an explosion of algae that robs water of oxygen, killing aquatic life. One toxic microorganism, Pfiesteria piscicida, has been implicated in the death of more than one billion fish in coastal waters in North Carolina.

Manure can also contain traces of salt and heavy metals, which can end up in bodies of water and accumulate in the sediment, concentrating as they move up the food chain. And lagoons not only pollute groundwater; they also deplete it. Many factory farms use groundwater for cleaning, cooling and providing drinking water.

Better Alternatives Exist

Practical remedies to these problems do exist. But implementing them will require some important changes in factory farm practices and government oversight:

  • Regulation and accountability. Factory farms are industrial facilities and should be regulated accordingly. They must obtain permits, monitor water quality and pay for cleaning up and disposing their wastes.
  • Increased transparency. The public should know where CAFOs are located, how CAFOs in their neighborhoods dispose of their waste, and what waterbodies or drinking water sources may be at risk. There is not currently a comprehensive database of this critical information, which should be collected and made publicly available.
  • Public awareness and participation. Local governments and residents must have a say in whether to allow factory farms in their communities. The public is also entitled to review and comment on the contents of pollution reduction plans and to enforce the terms, where a factory farm is in violation.
  • New technology. Factory-farm technology standards must be strengthened. The EPA must consider recent technology advances that significantly reduce pathogens.
  • Alternative farming practices. States and the federal government should promote methods of raising livestock that reduce the concentration of animals and use manure safely. Many alternative methods exist; they rely on keeping animal waste drier, which limits problems with spills, runoff and air pollution.
  • Pollution-reduction programs for small feedlots. Voluntary programs must be expanded to encourage smaller factory farms, which fall outside of the regulations for industrial facilities, to improve their management practices and take advantage of available technical assistance and other resources.
  • Consumer pressure. Individuals can help stop factory farm pollution by supporting livestock farms that use sustainable practices. In the grocery store, this means checking meat labels for "organic," "free range," "antibiotic-free," or similar wording, which indicates meat raised in a more sustainable manner. Many sustainable livestock farms also sell directly to consumers or through local farmers' markets.

    Two extremely useful tools that will help you use your buying power to support alternatives to food from factory farms are the Eat Well Guide and Sustainable Table.

last revised 2/21/2013

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