In a number of states where animal factories are heavily concentrated, the industry has successfully lobbied to take away a local government’s authority to regulate or zone CAFOs in their communities. The loss of “local control” has become a source of real frustration and tension among communities concerned about their quality of life.
CAFOs are Good for Rural Communities
CAFO operators entice rural communities with promises of skilled jobs and economic development opportunities. Preferred targets are regions up against years of persistent poverty. But hopes of economic revival are often accompanied by harsher realities. Members of CAFO communities frequently complain about losing control of their lives because of stench and pollution. They often can’t sit outside and enjoy their backyards or decks, plan birthday parties, enjoy recreational areas, fish in their local streams, or even visit loved ones in cemeteries.
The arrival of industrial agriculture in a rural region often forebodes a downturn in quality of life, particularly when heavy concentrations of animals are involved. Civic participation declines. Public health can deteriorate. A “CAFO-friendly” rural community can soon find itself unattractive to other economic development opportunities. Tragically, the decision to rely on CAFOs as a primary path toward economic development may be difficult for a community to reverse in the long term.1
Low-Wage Hazardous Work By design, a CAFO uses as little labor as possible. Those jobs that are created pay relatively low wages. Not all CAFO jobs offer medical benefits despite frequent exposure to hazardous conditions inside barns and processing facilities. The slaughterhouse industry also brings potential health risks to workers in communities across the globe. According to a 2008 series in the Charlotte Observer, “The Cruelest Cuts,” human costs of the ever-faster-paced slaughterhouse industry are rising in communities across North Carolina and South Carolina, where chicken and turkey production and processing are highly concentrated.2 Poultry workers can reportedly make as many as 20,000 cutting motions in a single shift.3 Many suffer chronic nerve and muscle damage, are maimed by machines, or are poisoned by toxic chemicals. Repetitive tasks can leave their hands wracked with pain or missing fingers. Such emotional and physical stress can radiate throughout an entire community.
Economic Outsourcing One would think that the establishment of a new industry in an area would at least have a positive “multiplier effect” on the regional economy, as the purchase of goods and services benefits local businesses. Studies consistently show, however, that CAFOs don’t necessarily infuse a great deal of money into local communities—not even in the short term. Since many CAFOs are vertically integrated (owning hatcheries, feed mills, production, and even slaughter facilities), they often purchase within their own organization rather than from local suppliers. Building materials, equipment, feed, and feeder animals are sourced from the cheapest outside supplier rather than from a local business. The same applies to labor. The work is so physically, mentally, and economically demanding that many of those employed in confinement operations, feed mills, and slaughterhouses turn out to be recent immigrants to communities, particularly Hispanics, and increasingly other ethnic minorities such as Hmong and Sudanese. This can add to heightened tensions in communities where CAFOs operate.
Declining Tax and Property Values Unless a CAFO generates more tax revenues than it consumes over time, it will eventually burden the coffers of local governments. Egregious air and water emissions may reduce opportunities for development in other economic sectors. The cost of infrastructure upkeep for road maintenance and water treatment in the region can begin to mount. As the value of surrounding residences declines, tax revenues from properties may plummet, further draining administrative budgets. A 1999 study estimated the average decline in land values within a three-mile radius from each CAFO in Missouri at $2.68 million.4 The Union of Concerned Scientists extrapolated that figure to include the 9,900 CAFOs in the United States. The total drop in U.S. land values due to industrial concentrated animal production was estimated at $26 billion.5
Ultimately, even the corporate contract operations may be forced to leave rural communities in the United States and Canada. Labor and investment costs are far lower in other countries of the world where giant multinational corporations operate today, and where environmental concerns, labor issues, and animal welfare regulations are far less developed. People of many other countries are even more desperate for economic opportunities than are communities across rural America. If and when CAFO operations leave North America, rural communities may be left with enormous messes to clean up.
Healthy Farms, Healthy Communities Locally based food and farming networks are arguably the best way to rebuild local communities and restore the American farmer’s chances for a better future. The challenge before us, however, is that following decades of consolidation and industrialization of the animal food sector, rural processing capacities and distribution networks have been gutted and are in desperate need of rebuilding. Billions of dollars have been invested in a grain-based CAFO food system. Yet demand for sustain-ably and locally produced meats, eggs, and milk in many regions is growing faster than the numbers of farmers able to supply them. Grass-based, free-range, and pastured livestock and poultry present excellent opportunities for family farmers transitioning out of intensive feed grain production. Public concerns about health, food safety, and inhumane growing conditions will continue to speed expansion of these community-friendly production methods.
1. John Ikerd, “Confronting CAFOs Through Local Control,” Organic Consumers Association, October 29, 2007.
2. “The Cruelest Cuts: The Human Costs of Bringing Poultry to Your Table,” Charlotte (NC) Observer, February 10–15, 2008.
3. Kerry Hall, Ames Alexander, and Franco Ordonez, “The Cruelest Cuts: The Human Cost of Bringing Poultry to Your Table,” Charlotte (NC) Observer, September 30, 2008.
4. Hamed Mubarak, Thomas G. Johnson, and Kathleen K. Miller, The Impacts of Animal Feeding Operations on Rural Land Values, Report R-99-02, College of Agriculture, University of Missouri—Columbia, May 1999, cited in Doug Gurian-Sherman, CAFOs Uncovered, 61.
5. Doug Gurian-Sherman, CAFOs Uncovered, 62.
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