The hidden costs of centralized animal feeding operations

The face of modern day agriculture has made a radical shift over the past few decades.  Most agricultural production in the United States is no longer done on small family owned farms, but on enormous corporate farms and animal feeding lots . One of the biggest changes comes from the rise of the Centralized Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). This new face of agriculture, and in particular CAFOs have the potential to seriously damage not only our environment, but also the health of our communities.

cheap meat

A wide array of cheap meat at a grocery store.

In 2008 the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report  that detailed the recent rise of these large scale animal production facilities and the results are striking.  This report indicates that the number of pig and cattle production facilities has rapidly increased in the last few decades, with an even larger increase in broiler chickens (raised specifically for meat) facilities. The amount of broiler meat produced between “1996 to 2006 increased by about 500%”  CAFOs are now responsible for producing the majority of the meat sold in the United States.

At first glance, these agribusiness giants might seem like an efficient way to produce food more economically, thus allowing farmers to reach new economies of scale, with the intention of passing the savings onto the consumer. However, there are many potential negative costs to these facilities.  CAFOs produce an enormous amount of waste emissions that are often attributed with polluting drinking water sources, spreading disease, contaminating soil, and even damaging recreational areas. These feeding operations place communities, farmers, citizens and consumers in great jeopardy because of their potential to do significant health and financial damage. At this scale of mega-industrial meat production, comes massive waste production, the extreme overuse of antibiotics, and the cultivation of a culture of heavy meat consumption, all down sides of this business model


Antibiotic treated animal feed. Wikipedia.

Perhaps even more startling are the horrific living conditions of CAFO raised livestock.  Cows, chickens and pigs are jammed into extremely “tightly confined spaces surrounded by their own feces, are fed excessive amounts of unnatural feed and receive copious amounts of drugs to keep them alive and uncontaminated”  Many of these animals will never see this light of day and are forced to suffer a meaningless and painful existence.


An extremely cramped chicken broiler. Wikipedia.

The truth of the matter is that the cheap prices of meat and dairy production do not reflect the true cost of the negative externalities CAFOs have on our health, our environment and on an appeal to conscious living.  Though many individuals are totally oblivious to these extreme costs to our country’s obsession with excessively cheap meat, the damages are nonetheless, mounting.  Planners and individuals however, have the potential to help fight back against these monstrous agricultural facilities through a number of practices.

Planners can work to help define CAFOs in a manner that would allow for real regulation.  As it currently stands, many cities and municipalitiesdefine CAFOs in a way that severely limits any real regulation.  Take for example a city might define a CAFO as any lot with over 1,000 animals whom are confined for over 100 days, but this definition would allow a facility to keep an excess of well over 1,000 animals confined for 90 days, thus limiting any real regulation since that facility would not be defined as a CAFO by municipal law.

Planners can also utilize land use tools such as zoning and permitting processes that would not only place limits on the size and scale of these agricultural ventures, but also would allow for regular review processes that can help keep some of the negative externalities in check. These planning related initiatives can help ensure that there is at least some semblance of control and regulation over these large scale agricultural machines. That said, if there is to be a real change there needs to be a significant shift in consumer preferences and actions.

Individuals who are concerned about the issue can make a stand with their wallets by buying only produce and agricultural products that are produced in a sustainable, local environment. The other step individuals can take is to remove themselves from the system of excessive meat consumption that is not only unhealthy, but unsustainable in the long run for the global environment and economy.