Food production has changed dramatically over the past decades, in part as a response to an increasing population. Meat production has more than tripled, and egg production has quadrupled since 1960. Farms have become more extensive and are now mostly corporate contracted to produce more and increase profits. In the United States, about 1.6 billion animals are raised on 25,000 industrial farms, often called factory farms or CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). According to 2017 data from the USDA Census of Agriculture on animals raised for meat, an estimated 70% of cows, 98% of pigs, 99% of turkeys, and nearly all chickens are from factory farms.
A serious problem associated with factory farms is the massive amount of waste produced, which totals about 335 million tons of manure (dry weight) in the US annually. In comparison, the US human population creates about 7 million tons of waste (dry weight). By definition, a commercial hog farm consists of 2500 swine or more, weighing at least 55 pounds. In the state of North Carolina, there are more than 2300 hog farms. A large feeding operation of 800,000 pigs can produce over 1.6 million tons of waste a year, which is about one and a half times more than the annual human waste produced by Philadelphia. Separate from human waste, hog and other livestock waste is not treated before being released into the environment.
In addition to the massive amounts of manure that contaminate air, land, and water, the negative consequences of this modern way of raising farm animals include the use of antibiotics to reduce the spread of infection, the production of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, and the release of excess nitrates, bacteria, and other contaminants, among others. Therefore, living near factory farms is likely unhealthy and disgusting. Researchers at Duke University found that poor health outcomes are more common in areas near CAFOs in North Carolina. Additionally, more African-American, Native American and lower-income residents live in zip codes with hog CAFOs than those living in areas without such facilities; this is an example of environmental injustice. Another concern associated with CAFOs is the inhumane treatment of animals.
In a recently written reflection by Pope Francis on where we go from lives lost, jobs lost, and so much more associated with the coronavirus pandemic, “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities — what we value, what we want, what we seek — and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.” Since massive amounts of food are wasted, people die every day from starvation, and many others are food insecure. The current agricultural methods are not sustainable; food production should be part of this rethinking.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.