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CAFOs Are Not Real Farms – Here's Why

Industrial livestock corporations work hard to create a public impression that CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are the same as traditional, independent farming operations.


Nothing could be further from the truth.


Factory farms are just that – industrial facilities designed to operate with economic efficiency to raise vast numbers of animals with the least amount of cost to the CAFO owner and/or corporation. The profits to be wrung from CAFOs are considered more important than the impacts of these factories on communities, the environment, and animal welfare.


The corporate livestock industry spends tens of millions of dollars every year in public relations campaigns to convince the public that these CAFOs are real farms.(1) (Learn more about that here.) Here are a host of reasons why they are not real farms but industrial operations that should be regulated as such.

Real Farms vs Factory Farms: Decision Making


Unlike a corporation, a family farm is not just a means of making money or even just a way to make a living—it is a way of life. On a true family farm, the farm and the family are inseparable. The farmer or farm family owns their livestock, makes the management decisions, and accepts personal responsibility for the consequences. The positive or negative impacts of these decisions on the health of their land and the quality of life in their communities are reflections of the ethical and social values of the family.

Real Hog Farm

Factory Hog Farm - CAFO

True family farms are managed to provide multiple economic, social, and ecological benefits for their workers, communities, consumers, and society in general, not just profits for the family. What is good for the land, good for the community, and good for society is good for the family farm.


Farms that are legally organized as family corporations can be managed much the same as independently owned family farms. The families can give their ethical and social values priority over the economic bottom-line – if they choose to do so. However, many of today’s farm families have chosen to relinquish their management responsibilities to publicly-traded corporations through comprehensive contractual arrangements.


According to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture,(2) the largest 4% of producers, those with annual sales of more than one-million dollars, now account for two-thirds of the total value of U.S. agricultural production. Virtually all of these large operations produce under some form of corporate influence or control. Just under 95% of all livestock and poultry operations are managed under some form of corporate contractual arrangement.(3) On most factory farms, the contract producer doesn’t even own the animals; they are owned by the corporate contractor.


Today many CAFO farmers claim to be family farmers because they own the CAFO building and have a corporation set up for their expenses and profits. But if they are raising livestock in confinement and contracting with a corporate supplier, it doesn’t make them a true family farmer in the traditional sense of the word.


Real Farms vs Factory Farms: Regulation


At the national level, agriculture is exempt from federal regulation under the Clean Air Act and is covered by only token regulations under the Clean Water Act. In Iowa, agriculture is also exempt from many regulations that apply to other industries. Factory farms are still regulated as if they were traditional family farms that don’t raise hogs or other livestock in industrial facilities that create large-scale pollution and other problems for neighbors and the environment.

However, defenders of industrial agriculture understand that industrial agriculture eventually will be confronted with increasing government regulations—like other resource extracting and environmental polluting industries. In response, the agricultural establishment has adopted a nationwide legislative strategy to build a legal “firewall” to protect corporate agriculture from future government regulation.

Strategically designed and orchestrated legislative initiatives have promoted stronger “right to farm” laws in agricultural states all across the country. By one means or another, these

laws give “corporate, industrial farms” the same legal rights as “traditional, family farms.” They also officially sanction the use of industrial farming methods by labeling them “accepted modern farming practices.” Some of these laws essentially exempt farming from nuisance suits by neighbors and any form of effective government regulation.


Laws in several states restricting corporate ownership of farmland have been challenged, weakened, or overturned. The state of Missouri has legally sanctioned ownership of farmland by foreign corporations. This clearly is part of the national campaign to convince Americans that corporate agriculture is fundamentally the same as traditional family farming.


Real Farms vs Factory Farms: Manure Management


Noxious odors usually are the first and probably most frequent concern of neighbors of CAFOs. Proponents claim that while odors from CAFOs may be an occasional nuisance, they are no different from other agricultural operations that, by their nature, emit dust particles and odors into the air. 


In fact, the anaerobic process (without air and light) by which animal manure decomposes in the large manure pits and cesspools associated with CAFOs is quite different from aerobic decomposition of manure in open fields. Manure generated on traditional farms is a solid that breaks down naturally from exposure to sunlight and air. Soil microorganisms immediately begin decomposing manure as soon as it hits the ground. Manure certainly has a barnyard odor but it’s not the stench that CAFOs generate.

Photo: NRCS

On the other hand, the anaerobic process in CAFOs creates chemical compounds associated with their noxious odors including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane. Dust particulates from CAFOs can carry antibiotic resistant bacteria, viruses, E. coli, Salmonella, parasites, antibiotics, hormones, and numerous other contaminants.(4)


Numerous scientific studies by reputable health institutions have linked air pollution from CAFOs to a variety of respiratory ailments not only of people working in CAFOs but also of people living near CAFOs, particularly children in nearby schools. (5)

Research also verifies that the public health risks of CAFOs posed by water polluted by livestock manure are similar to those posed by untreated human sewage. A “medium” size CAFO, meaning up 2,499 head of hogs (and which is virtually unregulated), can generate the biological waste equivalent to the human waste from a municipality of 7,500 to 10,000 people. (6) There are logical reasons for requiring sophisticated, multi-stage waste treatment systems for municipalities of 7,500 to 10,000 people.


It would be unthinkable that the people in a municipality of 10,000 people would be allowed to spread their untreated raw sewage on city lawns and backyards to be flushed away with the storm water. Yet it is legal to spread even far larger amounts of raw, untreated sewage from CAFOs near people’s homes. “Knifing in” manure does little more than speed contamination of groundwater relative to surface water.


Real Farms vs Factory Farms: Animal Welfare

Big Ag’s public relations campaign claims that CAFO operators have an economic incentive to treat their animals well in order to keep them healthy and productive. In fact, most farm animals are sent to slaughter at young ages, before most injuries or chronic illnesses can cause significant weight loss or death.

Farm animals are social animals and evolved to flourish outdoors with room to socialize and express normal behaviors for their species. Animals in areas outside of their climatic range may

Photo: Humane Society of the United States

need shelter from adverse weather, but no animal is comfortable when it is confined in crates, cages, or other spaces too small to allow normal behavior. It is never humane to force an animal to live in or inches above its own putrefying wastes. Decades of research has verified that the physical and mental suffering of animals is given no consideration other than the impact on the economic bottom line. (7)


Real Farms vs Factory Farms: Antibiotic Resistance

Livestock raised on traditional, independent farms is not confined in massive numbers and therefore doesn’t need to be fed antibiotics for disease prevention. Farmers may use the drug for occasional illness, and the farmer has the ability to sequester a sick animal away from the herd if needed


However, in CAFOs, low-dose antibiotics are routinely administered in order to prevent disease from spreading like wildfire when animals are closely confined. For years, antibiotics were also used for growth enhancement so livestock could be sent to slaughter more quickly. While the FDA has instituted a voluntary guidance to try to reduce antibiotics for growth enhancement, a large loophole exists for a class of antibiotics that is used for both disease prevention and growth enhancement.


The Food and Drug Administration has known since at least the 1970s that routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock and poultry in CAFOs is a common source of antibiotic resistant bacteria, such as MRSA. An estimated 80% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used for livestock and poultry and 70% is routinely fed at sub-therapeutic (low dose) levels.


A 2013 U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention report resolved any doubt about the possible transference of antibiotic resistant bacteria from animals to humans: “Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food-producing animals can harm public health… Use of antibiotics in food-producing animals allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive while susceptible bacteria are suppressed or die. Resistant bacteria can be transmitted from food-producing animals to humans through the food supply.”(8)

A recent global summit of Heads of State at the United Nations General Assembly, only the fourth related to human health crises, concluded: “The high levels of AMR [antimicrobial resistance] already seen in the world today are the result of overuse and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials in humans, animals, and crops, as well as the spread of residues of these medicines in soil, crops and water.”(9)


The Director-General of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization stated:  “Antimicrobial resistance is a problem not just in our hospitals, but on our farms and in our food, too. Agriculture must shoulder its share of responsibility, both by using antimicrobials more responsibly and by cutting down on the need to use them.” Antibiotic resistant bacteria has become a major public health risk and is clearly linked to CAFOs.

Photo: Umberto Salvagnin

The growing antibiotic resistance threat also impacts the US food system, touted as the safest, most healthful food system in the world by the corporately-funded PR campaigns. While this may have been true in the past, there is growing scientific evidence that food safety has diminished with industrialization of the American food system – including industrial agriculture. Recalls of food products of animal origin contaminated with salmonella, listeria, Campylobacter, and E-Coli, even if not yet routine, have become far from uncommon.(10)


Studies consistently have shown that significant percentages of livestock and poultry products in retail food markets are contaminated with a variety of infectious bacteria.(11)  A large percentage of bacteria found in contaminated animal food products, including the deadly MRSA, have been resistant to multiple antibiotics.(12)

Real Farms vs Factory Farms: Health Impacts of Omega 3-s and Omega 6-s


Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are important nutrients obtained from animal products that are necessary for the body to grow and repair itself. But these essential fats must be consumed in the proper levels to provide good health.

Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in protecting heart health, preventing stroke, reducing inflammation, and lowering blood pressure.(13) While Omega-6 fatty acids are also necessary, studies show that consuming too much Omega-6s increases the risk of diabetes, inflammatory diseases, cancer, and contributes to the obesity epidemic. (14, 15)Therefore, it’s important to consume a higher ratio of Omega -3 than Omega-6s to maintain one’s health.

The health benefits of eating beef and dairy products from animals raised on grass, rather than in CAFOs, and been widely documented in various scientific reports.(16) The benefits of grass-fed animal products arise primarily from higher levels of the Omega-3 fatty acids, or CLA, which have beneficial antioxidant properties.


CAFO animal products contain more harmful Omega-6 due to the high-energy grain rations fed in factory farms and lower levels of Omega-3s.


Benefits from pasture or free-range pork and poultry are similar, but not as easily documented because grass typically doesn’t make up a large part of their diets. That being said, the greater the diversity of animal diets, the greater the Omega-3 advantage over animals fed high-energy corn-soy feeds in CAFOs.(17)


More on health impacts here:

Real Farms vs Factory Farms: Impacts on Local Economies


The corporate propaganda campaign claims that industrial agriculture is necessary to ensure the economic future of rural communities. Contrary to such claims, the industrialization of agriculture has had a devastating effect on rural economies.


Prior to industrialization, thousands of small, independent family farms existed across the Iowa landscape. These farms relied on a variety of local businesses to support the farms, which fueled the local economy. Rural towns were vibrant entities that contributed to a rich community fabric. The vertical integration of livestock production – all services and supplies necessary for CAFOs managed by a massive corporation – reduced or eliminated the need for many local businesses.

Prairie City, Iowa.                               Photo: Bill Whitaker

The economic benefits of industrialization come from reducing costs of labor and management by reducing the number of workers and the skill-level of workers – both in manufacturing and in agriculture. As a result, independent family farmers have been replaced with a far smaller number of farm workers, most of whom are paid poorly.


In 1960, farmers were still more than eight percent of the U.S. workforce. Today, they are less than one percent.  Between 1980 and 2008, as CAFOs replaced independent livestock farmers, the number of beef cattle operations fell by 41%, hog farms declined by 90%, and dairy farms fell by 80%.(18) 

Numbers of livestock farmers continue to decline as the size of factory farms continues to grow. Rural communities have suffered and are stills suffering both economically and socially from this loss of traditional farm families.


A special socioeconomic report released in 2008 by the Pew Charitable Commission concluded: “Economically speaking, studies over the past 50 years demonstrate that the encroachment of industrialized agriculture operations upon rural communities results in lower relative incomes for certain segments of the community and greater income inequality and poverty, a less active “Main Street,” decreased retail trade, and fewer stores in the community.”(19)


A 2006 study commissioned by the State of North Dakota Attorney General’s Office reviewed 56 socioeconomic studies that consistently “found detrimental effects of industrialized farming on many indicators of community quality of life, particularly those involving the social fabric of communities.”(20) The only kinds of economic development attracted to “industrial agricultural communities” are other environmentally polluting and socially degrading industries.


Adapted from a paper authored by Dr. John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri at Columbia.   


[1] Spinning Food. Friends of the Earth. 2015.

(2) United States Department of Agriculture, Census of Agriculture, 2012.

(3) James M. MacDonald, “Trends in Agricultural Contracts,” Choices, AAEA.

(4) United States EPA, Literature Review of Contaminants in Livestock and Poultry Manure and Implications for Water Quality. July 2013. 

(5) Pew Commission Report on Industrial Animal Agriculture. Impact of Industrial Farm Animal Production on Rural Communities. 2008. 

(6) Ron Fleming and Marcy Ford, “Human versus Animals - Comparison of Waste Properties.” Ridgetown College - University of Guelph, July 4, 2001. 

(7) What’s on Your Plate? The Hidden Costs of Industrial Animal Agriculture in Canada. World Society for Protection of Animals. 2012.

(8) Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013 Executive Summary. US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013.

(9)  “At UN Global Leaders Commit to Act on Antimicrobial Resistance.” General Assembly of the United Nations. 9/21/16.

(10) U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Recalls, Market Withdrawals, and Safety Alerts.

(11) Cuiwei Zhao, et al. "Prevalence of Campylobacter spp., Escherichia coli, and Salmonella Serovars in Retail Chicken, Turkey, Pork, and Beef from the Greater Washington, D.C. Area.Applied Environmental Microbiology December 2001 vol. 67 no. 12.

(12) Andrew E. Waters et al. "Multidrug-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus in US Meat and Poultry.Clinical Infectious Diseases. (2011) 52 (10):1227-1230, published online: April 15, 2011. 

(13) Simopoulos, Artemis P. 17 Science-Based Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.”

(14) “An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-03 Fatty Acid Radio Increases the Risk for Obesity.” Nutrients. March 2016.

(15) Massiera, Florence et al. “A Western-like Fat Diet Is Sufficient to Induce a Gradual Enhancement in Fat Mass Over Generations.” Journal of Lipid Research. August 2010. Volume 51, pages 2352-2361.

(16) Cynthia A Daley, et al. “A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef” Nutrition Journal. 20109:10, .

(17) “Not Just Cows: Pastured Pork and Poultry." PaleoLeap.

(18) R-CALF USA. “Comments on Agriculture and Antitrust Enforcement Issues in Our 21st Century Economy.” Comment to U.S. Department of Justice. December 31, 2009. 

(19) Impact of Industrial Farm Animal Production on Rural Communities. Pew Commission Report on Industrial Animal Agriculture, 2008.

(20) Curtis Stofferahn. “Industrialized Farming and Its Relationship to Community Well-Being: an Update of the 2000 Report by Linda Labao.” Special report prepared for the North Dakota, Office of Attorney General.

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