Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, are livestock activities that operate at industrial levels. Facilities that focus on this type of agricultural production can house anywhere from several hundred to millions of animals on one property. Most businesses focus on chickens, hogs, or dairy cows to maximize the value of food production, but these mega-farms can feature virtually any animal where there is a market for the goods produced.
Intensive animal farming is a relatively new concept in the history of human food production. Recent developments in technology and science that started in the 19th century allowed for the introduction of mass production gradually since then. Vitamin supplements and their role in nutrition was a breakthrough because it allowed for indoor raising. Vaccines and antibiotics also reduced the number of animals lost to disease.
Because of CAFOs, food production levels continue to rise while the number of agricultural workers decreases. Factory farming in 1990 accounted for 30% of global meat production. That figure rose to 40% by 2005. It continues to climb still today. That’s why the pros and cons of concentrated animal feeding operations are essential to look at today.
List of the Pros of CAFO
1. CAFOs help us to reduce issues with food waste.
Over 1 billion pounds of food goes to waste every year because our farming efforts produce more than we consume. The issue with hunger is one of politics and distribution instead of production. Instead of letting those items go to waste, the presence of CAFOs allows us to create fertilizer, supplements, and feed that can go to the animals raised on these properties. We’re recycling the food we produce so that it can create new options to solve hunger in the future.
The benefits from this specific advantage let us improve the life of the food items produced by CAFOs up to seven days longer than the traditional approach.
2. Farming can happen almost anywhere.
Organizations can place a CAFO almost anywhere to encourage higher levels of food production. Because the animals can be raised indoors thanks to nutritional supplements and modern medicine, almost any climate can support this effort. Critics would say that the restriction placed on the animals from going outside is not healthy for them, but this advantage does let us transform lands into production facilities when they’d normally be unusable for agricultural purposes.
Building designs can allow sunshine to come through and winds to pass along without creating a problem for the animals or the agricultural workers. This benefit comes with a higher capital investment, but it can also calm some of the fears that people have.
3. Food prices stay low because of CAFOs.
The presence of CAFOs in the United States allows Americans to spend less of their discretionary income on food than any other country on the planet. At the turn of the 20th century, the average household was spending 40% or more to supply themselves with enough food to eat. Now that figure is as low as 8.2% for some families. This advantage is not as significant as income levels go down, with the poorest households spending up to 35% of their discretionary funds on food, but the presence of this approach to raising animals still products more to eat than would be available otherwise.
4. It creates a market where some food prices can go down.
Fresh vegetables had a price spike of more than 5% between 2014-2018 because of transportation logistics and higher demand levels. Other fresh foods saw decreases in their cost because of improved practices at CAFOs. Families are spending less on fresh fruits, poultry, and fats or oils in 2019 than they were in 2014. Egg prices dropped by 15% during that period. Almost every category of food, with the exception of seafood and fish, rose at a rate that was lower than inflation thanks to our industrial approach to farming.
Consumers, businesses, and government entities spent a total of $1.71 trillion on food items and beverages in grocery stores and retailers.
5. CAFOs provide plenty of employment opportunities.
Automation makes the need for agricultural workers less demanding on communities today than in the past, but there are still significant employment opportunities with CAFOs. About 70% of every dollar spent on local food items creates an economic benefit that supports the entire community. The large-scale farms purchase feed supplies from local companies too, creating indirect jobs that provide economic benefits. The average concentrated animal feeding operation can provide over $1 million in total support for a local economy of any size in its first 12 months of operations.
6. Organizations can diversify their food portfolio with CAFOs.
CAFOs might focus on dairy cattle, hogs, and chickens in the United States, but that doesn’t mean they must focus on one animal or food product alone. These firms can produce items from all three of these primary categories if they want. That means we can get food to the market faster when compared to the conventional methods of farming that exist. Poultry products take half of the time to be ready for sale today than they did 40 years ago. Even cattle raised for meat produce over 300 pounds more usable product than in the past.
This benefit gives us more food choices, lower costs, and wages that support the community simultaneously. That’s why CAFOs can create a positive impact when they are operated correctly.
List of the Cons of CAFO
1. CAFOs lead to an increase in antibiotic resistance.
Microbiologists and Food Science specialists think the CAFOs will create an environment that is eventually going to result in the emergence of a pandemic influenza virus such as H5N1 (in the case of poultry CAFOs) because CAFOs use feed supplemented with antibiotics which will lead to an increase in antibiotic resistance. (See “The Chickens Come Home to Roost,” American Journal of Public Health, 97(9):1545-1546).
2. CAFOs produce a lot of pollutants.
The amount of feces and urine that even small CAFOs produce is significantly high. The average operations will create the same amount of waste that 16,000 humans create each day. Owners and operators must spend millions of dollars on technologies that help them to manage the sewage and waste materials that pollute the local environment. Even then, most of the waste doesn’t receive treatment to reduce pathogens that cause disease. There are rarely efforts to remove heavy metals, chemicals, or pharmaceuticals.
That means workers and property owners in and around the CAFO are at a higher risk than the general population of dealing with the adverse impacts created by this disadvantage.
3. CAFOs create a negative influence on the environment.
There are over 160 different gases that emit from the waste that CAFOs produce. Some of them are hazardous chemicals, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. You’ll also have greenhouse gas emissions like methane and carbon dioxide to manage. Although the share of agriculturally-based emissions compared to the overall figure is relatively low in the United States, the majority of farm-based issues come from concentrated animal feeding operations.
Even the particulate matter found near CAFOs can carry diseases. Bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens are sometimes detectable at or near facilities even when proactive steps are taken to curb this problem.
4. Animals have fewer opportunities to live a natural life.
The intensive farming methods utilized by CAFOs give us the benefit of producing more food in less space. That means the only way to increase efficiencies is to restrict the amount of movement that each animal receives. Some operations give their cattle, hogs, or chickens zero time outside. That creates a 100% restriction where some animals might not have the ability to move or live a natural life.
Some chickens are kept in cages that are smaller than the latest iPad model from Apple. Some CAFOs trim hooves or clip wings to limit movement. This disadvantage creates a secondary problem that can impact the quality of the food available on the market.
5. The animals in CAFOs often reach an unnatural size.
The industrial farming methods used by CAFOs encourages results over the health of the animal. That means some locations may use medication, artificial stimulants, or specific feeding strategies that encourage massive growth. This combination of factors creates a better speed to the market for food, but it also creates a final product that is not as healthy for human consumption as items in the past.
You must shop for specific food grades and cuts to ensure that you’re getting the best product possible. Organic products have a higher range of Omega-3 fatty acids. Foods that come from animals who don’t receive hormones or antibiotics will usually cost more. If you eat caged chicken meat, then it will have a higher fat content than free-range animals unless you remove the skin from the product.
6. CAFOs can increase the levels of localized soil erosion.
A lack of agricultural activities can reduce the quality of soil on the property where the CAFO is located. It will experience less carbon dioxide consumption over time, increasing the impact of the greenhouse emissions produced by the facility. There can be issues with sunlight absorption. Even the ability to grow crops can be impacted for years after CAFOs cease activities because of this disadvantage. When there is no stability in the soil, then property values decrease, and structures become vulnerable to damage.
7. Some animals may not receive adequate veterinarian care.
Animals that get sick when living in CAFOs may go straight to slaughter instead of receiving the health care they need to get better. These operations function as a business, which means profits must take a priority. Some facilities use antibiotics proactively to prevent illnesses from forming in the first place. If a veterinarian does not have access to a facility, then the animals may suffer throughout their entire life before becoming part of the food chain.
The disadvantages of some CAFOs can be so intense that local veterinarians sometimes refuse to serve these facilities.
8. It changes the psychological profile of the animals.
CAFOs must use intensive farming methods to maximize the potential of their profit margins. That’s why young offspring are often separated from their mothers almost immediately after birth. By taking a calf away from a dairy cow, the facility can encourage stronger milk production levels. Piglets are weaned in as little as two weeks to support faster pregnancy turnarounds. Some young offspring even become part of the human food chain.
We know that these separations cause psychological distress because of the actions of the parent. Cattle, goats, and hogs have known to break through fences to reunite with their offspring. Some animal parents try to hide their children from agricultural workers because they know what people are trying to do. Mothers will react to the calls of their young ones for more than a year after their birth, which means CAFOs could cause more ethical harm than people realize with these practices.
9. CAFOs force animals to be over-productive.
Chickens will usually lay one egg each day. Their molting process occurs at night, triggering the steps needed to produce the nesting experience. Forcing the bird into artificial darkness for eight hours without food or water can cause a second egg to be laid each day. It is a trick that kills up to 10% of the hens that go through it, but this practice can also increase production levels for CAFOs so that extra profits are possible.
Cattle go through a process of artificial insemination to start producing milk faster than usual. Keeping the cow constantly pregnant ensures that milk keeps flowing. When there is nothing left to produce, then the CAFO can send the cow to the butcher to profit from the meat products in some way.
10. Pricing is often fixed instead of competitive.
Milk prices in the United States have been tied to the value of a 40-pound wheel of Cheddar since the 1930s. Since most dairy products come from CAFOs instead of family farms, it has become much easier to manipulate market pricing. Even when prices for milk fall by more than 40%, intensive farming methods make it possible to increase profits. It is a battle of the big vs. the small producer when these facilities are present in the community, and it is rare for the family facilities to flourish using the traditional approach.
Concentrated animal feeding operations are necessary at times because a growing human society requires more food to eat. The total levels of agricultural production require us to feed 2 billion more people by 2050. CAFOs give us a way to do that without overwhelming the planet because we can freeze agriculture’s footprint so that we’re not plowing prairies or taking forests away.
Intensive methods can help us to achieve our food goals if we can find ways to prevent waste products and fertilizers from overwhelming our agricultural footprint.
The pros and cons of CAFOs must continue to focus on animal welfare if we are going to produce food products ethically. We must also take our environmental considerations into account and look at the economic impact of these activities. We can solve world hunger, but we must do it in a way that doesn’t hurt others along the way.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.