Union of Concerned Scientists on CAFO Externalities

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 one of the top contributors 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.

The target of his critique is not livestock as a whole, but rather the intensive, CAFO practices that lead to such dramatic externalities. He argues that meat, eggs, and dairy should instead be produced on smaller, less crowded livestock operations that utilize the latest scientific innovations to produce sufficient quantities of food without creating such dramatic externalities. To achieve this, he believes that there needs to be a reorientation of government policy to require livestock producers to internalize the costs of production rather than externalizing them to taxpayers and local communities.

While there is certainly a wider case to be made against livestock in general, his argument still hits on some of the key problems arising from CAFOs, showing that less intensive forms of livestock can be much more sustainable. He shows that CAFOs produce so much urine and manure that waste management becomes a problem (the EPA estimates that there is roughly 500 million cubic meters of CAFO waste in the US each year, over three times the total waste produced by all Americans). Whereas smaller, less concentrated operations produce an amount of animal waste that can readily be absorbed back into the ground, contributing to soil fertility, the land around larger operations cannot absorb such large amounts of waste — leading to ground water contamination, atmospheric pollution from the volatilization of the ammonia in animal urine, and run-off into waterways that can create giant “dead zones” from algal blooms. He also criticizes the large amount of non-therapeutic, growth-promoting antibiotics that many CAFO producers utilize, which leads to antibiotic resistant pathogens responsible for the hospitalization and death of many people in the US each year.

As Gurian-Sherman points out, it is difficult to estimate the true cost of the externalities related to CAFOs, but that one method is to calculate the cost of preventing some or all of the pollution that they cause. These externalized costs, along with the elimination of subsidies would significantly increase production costs: according to him, “conservative estimates of grain subsidies and manure distribution alone suggest that CAFOs would have incurred at least $5 billion in extra production costs per year if these expenses were not shifted onto the public.” He shows that the cost of adequately distributing manure over farmland so as to comply with the Clean Water Act in the Chesapeake Bay area alone would be between $134 million and $152 million annually. He also makes a very rough estimate that the loss in property value for local communities near CAFOs would equate to something like $26 billion nationally. These figures may or may not be accurate, but the point is that if these cost were internalized, it could severely compromise the revenue from CAFOs.

So in his analysis, Gurian-Sherman is not wrong in the problems he analyzes, but rather limited in that he leaves out many other problems associated with CAFOs. One would expect an organization with such an explicit mission of providing research on climate change to put more emphasis on exposing the effects that livestock has on climate change. Incidentally, there is a recent paper by the UCS which explores the heavy climate impacts of beef production.

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