If all of the costs of CAFO production were included in the check-out price, consumers would experience radical sticker shock: annual government subsidy programs, air pollution and water contamination, the creation of drug- resistant organisms, the degradation of shared resources.
Industrial Food is Cheap
The retail prices of industrial meat, dairy, and egg products omit immense impacts on human health, the environment, and other shared public assets. These costs, known among economists as “externalities,” include massive waste emissions with the potential to heat up the atmosphere, foul fisheries, pollute drinking water, spread disease, contaminate soils, and damage recreational areas. Citizens ultimately foot the bill with hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, medical expenses, insurance premiums, declining property values, and mounting cleanup costs.
Walk into any fast-food chain and you’re likely to find a “value” meal: chicken nuggets or a cheeseburger and fries for a price almost too good to be true. For families struggling to make ends meet, a cheap meal may seem too tough to pass up. Indeed, animal factory farm promoters often point to America’s bargain fast-food prices as proof that the system is working. The CAFO system, they argue, supplies affordable food to the masses. But this myth of cheap meat, dairy, and egg products revolves around mounting externalized social and ecological costs that never appear on restaurant receipts or grocery bills.
Staggering Environmental Burdens Environmental damages alone should put to rest any illusions that food produced in industrial animal factories is cheap. Soil and water have been poisoned through decades of applying synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow billions of tons of livestock feed. Water bodies have been contaminated with animal wastes. The atmosphere is filled with potent greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The mitigation costs for these problems are enormous. But what is worse, this essential cleanup work of contaminated resources is, for the most part, not being done.
To cite just one example, agricultural runoff—particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from poultry and hog farms—is a major source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, a once-vital East Coast fishery, now with numerous species on the verge of collapse.1 One study estimated the price tag for restoring the bay at $19 billion, of which $11 billion would go toward “nutrient reduction.”2 There are over 400 such dead zones throughout the world.3
Health Costs Industrial animal production brings profound health risks and costs to farmers, workers, and consumers. CAFO workers suffer from emissions associated with industrial farming, as do neighboring communities. Medical researchers have linked the country’s intensive meat consumption to such serious human health maladies as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.4 Annual costs for just these diseases in the United States alone exceed $33 billion.5 Antibiotic-resistant organisms (“superbugs”) created by overuse of antibiotics in industrial meat and dairy production can increase human vulnerability to infection. One widely cited U.S. study estimated the total annual costs of antibiotic resistance at $30 billion.6 Estimated U.S. annual costs associated with E. coli O157:H7, a bacteria derived primarily from animal manure, reach $405 million: $370 million for deaths, $30 million for medical care, and $5 million for lost productivity.7
All these associated health problems drive up the costs of social services and insurance premiums. They reduce productivity and increase employee sick days. They can also result in premature deaths, with incalculable costs for families and communities.
Farm Communities The retail prices of cheap animal food products also fail to reflect industrial agriculture’s ongoing dislocation of farm families and the steady shuttering of businesses in rural communities. According to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the average industrial hog factory puts ten family farmers out of business, replacing high quality agricultural jobs with three to four hourly wage workers in relatively low-paying and potentially dangerous jobs.8 When small farmers fall on hard times, many local employers close their doors and, at worst, entire communities, towns, and regional food production and distribution webs disappear from the landscape.
Government Subsidies Perverse government subsidies—both in the United States and Europe—provide billions of tax dollars to support industrial animal agriculture. Tufts University researchers estimate that in the United States alone, between 1997 and 2005 the industrial animal sector saved over $35 billion as a result of federal farm subsidies that lowered the price of the feed they purchased.9 Similar savings were not available to many small and midsize farmers who were growing their own feed and raising livestock in diversified pasture-based systems. Throughout the 2002 U.S. farm bill, individual CAFO investors were also eligible to receive up to $450,000 for a five-year EQIP contract from the U.S. government to deal with animal wastes—allowing large operations with many investors to rake in a much greater sum. European Union agricultural subsidies also bolster industrial animal producers, providing $2.25 per dairy cow per day—25 cents more than what half the world’s human population survives on.10
A Less Costly Alternative By contrast, many sustainable livestock operations address potential negative health and environmental impacts through their production methods. They produce less waste and forego dangerous chemicals and other additives. Grasspastured meat and dairy products have been shown to be high in omega-3 and other fatty acids that have cancer-fighting properties.11 Smaller farms also receive fewer and smaller federal subsidies. While sustainably produced foods may cost a bit more, many of their potential beneficial environmental and social impacts are already included in the price.
1. U.S. Geological Survey, “Chesapeake Bay: Measuring Pollution Reduction.”
2. Karl Blankenship, “Analysis Puts Bay Cleanup Tab at $19 Billion,” Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Bay Journal, December 2002.
3. Robert J. Diaz and Rutger Rosenberg, “Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems,” Science, August 15, 2008.
4. Polly Walker, Pamela Rhubart-Berg, Shawn McKenzie, Kristin Kelling, and Robert S. Lawrence, “Public Health Implications of Meat Production and Consumption,” Public Health and Nutrition 8, no. 4 (2005): 348–56.
5. Ibid., 349.
6. Doug Gurian-Sherman, CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists, April 2008), 64.
7. Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America, A Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2008), 13.
8. “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Smithfield Foods Criminal Behaviour,” CogitamusBlog.com, April 30, 2009.
9. Elanor Starmer and Timothy A. Wise, Feeding at the Trough: Industrial Livestock Firms Saved $35 Billion from Low Feed Prices, Policy Brief No. 07-03 (Medford, MA: Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute, December 2007).
10. Jon Jeter, “Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People” (New York: Norton, 2009), xii.
11. Larry Satter, “Amazing Graze,” Agricultural Research 48, no. 4 (April 2000).
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