The outbreak of H1N1 influenza—recently classified as an international pandemic by the World Health Organization—has put a human face on the health risks posed by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As people become more informed of the potentials for disease transfer, the possible squandering of antibiotic medicines, and tragedies of environmental degradation, dissatisfaction with large-scale industrial animal factories is intensifying. The H1N1 outbreak is just one of many signs that this type of industrial agriculture cannot be permitted to continue as currently practiced much longer. Reform is a matter of when, not if.
In November, California voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to prohibit confinement cages that do not give egg-laying hens, pregnant pigs, or calves raised for veal adequate room to stand up and fully extend their limbs. While Prop 2, (the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act), represents a major step forward in implementing better practices and more humane treatment for animals, its larger effect may be far beyond the California state line.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a major proponent of Prop 2, is modeling similar initiatives in states such as Michigan and Ohio, which have large embedded CAFO industries as well as ballot initiative systems. In an attempt to block reforms in Ohio, the agribusiness lobby is proposing a pre-emptive legislation that would create industry-determined statewide standards and oversight for farm-raised animals. The Ohio Farm Bureau is attempting to fast track this idea to voters this fall, with the hope of rendering any tighter controls condoned by the HSUS redundant and unnecessary. (One of the best places to find regular updates on both sides of this issue is www.farmpolicy.com)
These reform movements are not relegated to the animal welfare movement, however, nor to the increasingly critical United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which has a web page specifically dedicated to issues surrounding industrial animal production (http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/home/en/index.htm).
Maryland’s attorney general, Douglas Gansler, is pushing for a ban on arsenic, a conventional growth promoter (and suspected human carcinogen) relied upon by the U.S. poultry industry, which is heavily concentrated in the Delmarva Peninsula. Under current law, chickens can be fed small amounts of arsenic along with their feed, purportedly to speed growth and fight parasites. Gansler recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for a ban of arsenicals such as roxarsone in chicken feed, as they may be passed on to humans who eat poultry or drink water contaminated by run-off from the industry’s prolific manure. (The poultry industry reportedly generates 1.2 billion pounds of manure each year in Maryland alone.) The Maryland attorney general is currently working with 30 other states through the National Association of Attorneys General to convince the Food and Drug Administration to ban this practice.
The Obama administration is supporting a bill (“The Preservation of Antibiotics For Medical Treatment Act of 2009”) that would ban “many routine uses of antibiotics in farm animals in hopes of reducing the spread of dangerous bacteria in humans.” Antibiotic medicines have been heralded as one of the scientific miracles of the 20th century, but their excessive use in industrial animal agriculture has raised grave concerns about the creation and spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. (According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the CAFO industry uses 70 percent of all antibiotics in the United States.) The New York Times reports that the American Medical Association is one of the key supporters of the legislation. Industry groups such as the National Pork Producers Council are lobbying hard against it. The measure could have industry-wide implications with regard to the incomprehensible concentrations of animals currently being raised in single locations. If non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics were banned, and any use of antibiotics can only be done with supervision from a veterinarian, CAFOs may be forced to radically scale down the size of their operations in order to control disease and maintain healthy animals.
We should probably get used to hearing a lot more about the unintended consequences of our industrialized food system. Slowly but surely, people in all circles and at all levels of government are demanding that food production be put back on a healthy track. This is a very encouraging sign—our present and future are both at stake.
To read more about these issues, check out the following reports:
Pew Commission, Putting Meat on the Table;
Union of Concerned Scientists, CAFOs Uncovered;
UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow.