In 2008, The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a study led by Doug Gurian-Sherman that focused on many of the externalities related to animal agriculture in the US. It argues that the increasingly common CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations, often referred to as factory farms) are harmful, unsustainable, and have made tax-payers and local communities bear the cost of many of the negative side-effects that they produce — i.e. they have externalized many of their costs. Misguided government policy has enabled this mode of livestock production to become the norm through subsidies to producers, government clean-up of waste sites, and cheap livestock feed, despite that other, more sustainable forms of animal husbandry could be productive and profitable. There has been a simultaneous growth in the power and market concentration of the large, vertically-integrated livestock processing companies that control every step of the production of livestock products; they are often referred to as “semen to celophane” operations, since they literally incorporate every phase from breeding, to raising, slaughter, and processing. These big ag corporations, such as Smithfield, Tyson, and Perdue, are defended by a powerful lobby that exerts significant power over government policy. For many years, the EPA has also been very lax on CAFOs whose manure lagoons polluted US waterways – a violation of the Clean Water Act — though fortunately has gotten stricter in recent years (see Animal Factory, by David Kirby, for example.)
Gurian-Sherman’s argument is limited in many ways. While there is a dramatic, qualitative difference between intensive and extensive animal agriculture, many negative externalities are not resolved by merely replacing CAFOs with other forms of production. He calls attention to some of the key externalities related to CAFOs, such as water/air pollution and antibiotic resistance, though his analysis does not look at many of the other externalities associated with CAFOs and animal agriculture in general. While there is mention of livestock’s effect on climate change, he only hints at it in his article — which is bizarre given livestock’s status as the number one contributor to manmade greenhouse gas emissions in carbon equivalent (see the FAO and World Watch). Furthermore, he does not focus on animal welfare or sustainability issues related to the mass consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy; again, it seems that he is overlooking some very urgent issues associated with raising over 56 billion livestock animals annually worldwide, primarily in intensive operations.