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Winning Helium.com Essay: The Effect of Factory Farming on the Environment

Written by PETA | November 14, 2008

The following is the winning PETA article on Helium.com and was written by Amanda Day.

Factory farms’ presence increased significantly over the past fifty years. Continued growth will cause further environmental damage. Factory farms also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as facilities that confine and feed livestock for 45 days or more in any 12 month period and the area is absent of grass and vegetation typical of natural conditions. Traditional, pastoral, American farms where animals graze and exercise their natural behaviors have been replaced by factory farms where animals processed for food live in filthy, cramped, unnatural conditions detrimental to animals and our environment. Factory farms’ deplorable practices compromise our water, soil and air quality. They must be removed from our landscape.

Contaminated water is unpleasant, dangerous and responsible for endangering ecosystems and diminishing biodiversity. Fertilizer ingredients sprayed on animal feed including potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus naturally occur in our environment, but accumulation of these elements is hazardous. Excess amounts spill, leak and runoff into the ground, fouling water and encouraging algae to grow which depletes oxygen and kills fish and other aquatic animals. Factory farms’ sizes make these occurrences frequent. Each incident jeopardizes species by rendering water and terrain uninhabitable. If factory farms continue to operate and expand, less water and land will be available for growing whole foods which can sustain a greater number of people using natural resources more efficiently.

Fertilizers represent only the beginning of factory farms’ harmful affects on our environment. Manure and urine pollute the air and further taint already spoiled water and soil. Four gases mainly responsible for the stench wafting into our atmosphere are methane, ammonia, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. All of these gases in excess are known to cause considerable health problems including eye, nose, and throat irritations, headaches, lack of coordination, nausea, liver and kidney damage, central nervous system complications and certain cancers. High levels of carbon dioxide released by factory farms prevent tissues and organs from absorbing oxygen triggering chest pains, fatigue and decreased concentration as well as vision and brain impairments. Odors and poor health often indicate air pollution. Climate changes ensue when these gases get trapped in our atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect.

Why such an excess of gas? Animals processed for food in factory farms increased about 60% within the past five decades. Increased animals means increased animal waste. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, noted that consumers today spend about $110 billion annually eating four times the amount of chicken and three times the amount of beef and pork compared to previous decades explaining the continued growth and profitability of fast food establishments. Growing consumer demand for cheap meat and dairy products perpetuates the existence of factory farms on a global scale inhibiting governments’ abilities to regulate and hold CAFOs accountable for environmental damage.

Farming methods practiced by traditional farmers had less of an impact on the environment than factory farms. Traditional farmers conducted business on a long cycle meaning they often raised livestock and crops simultaneously using a conventional fertilizer method, composted manure. Wealthy CAFOs operate on a short cycle focused on quantity. Even if animal waste were properly composted and utilized on nearby crops, the amount would be excessive. When lagoons, where animal waste is held, are not properly managed, waste leaks into our groundwater and emits high levels of gases into the atmosphere worsening global warming. The inability of traditional farmers to compete with CAFOs is partly the reason factory farms dominate our landscape.

Soil, water and air quality diminish as factory farm numbers grow. Fertilizers and animal waste contribute to environmental destruction while medications foster new bacteria. Factory farm managers use antibiotics to prevent outbreaks of sickness resulting from animals being confined in unnatural, cramped settings filled with their own excrement. As strains of bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, new bacteria strains develop and pose serious problems to our environment. A foreign introduction into any surrounding disrupts nature’s equilibrium.

With a disruption of our environment’s balance, conserving natural resources becomes even more crucial, but that is not what happens. The amount of energy required to manage CAFOs further taxes our polluted environment. “Beef production alone uses more water than is consumed in growing the nation’s entire fruit and vegetable crops” [Motavalli, Jim. “So You’re an Environmentalist; Why Are You Still Eating Meat?” AlterNet.]. A typical dairy farmer will use 150 gallons of water per day on each cow to wash and flush out the manure system. In addition to high volumes of water usage, land that could be used to grow crops for people is used to grow animal feed not to mention all the transportation required to ship animal feed and animals to be processed.

Companies have taken a captive supply and/or vertical integration approach to agribusiness. Captive supply is when a packing company owns contracts for cattle giving them a market advantage because they do not have to bid on cattle for slaughter in the open market. Vertical integration gives an even greater advantage because the company owns the entire process—factory farms, fertilizer manufacturing plants, feed sources, slaughterhouses, packaging and distribution centers as well as technology like genetic engineering and irradiation. These companies are modern day monopolies. To save our environment from further adverse effects of factory farms, they must be either preferably dismantled or held accountable for their negative impact on our environment.

Factory farms profit at the expense of animals and our environment. Their wealth and power influence government policies. We may not pay at the checkout line, but we pay when we visit the doctor for health problems directly correlated to factory farms’ callous operations and with our tax monies to subsidize the meat and dairy industries as well as clean up their toxic waste. One way to combat factory farms’ adverse effects on the environment is to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle. Consumers unwilling to give up animal products should purchase responsibly and write representatives urging them to enact harsher penalties for factory farms’ spills, leaks and runoff disasters.

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