President’s Corner: CAFO Contradictions and Test-tube Meat

geoffrey-lawrenceConcentrated Animal Feeding Operations – commonly referred to as CAFOs – have become an important, if not controversial, component of industrial farming throughout the world. CAFOs are often praised for the efficient way in which animals can be raised, slaughtered, and their protein delivered to a hungry world. But they also raise concerns about environmental pollution and, in particular, animal cruelty. What do we know about CAFOs? Are they the future of animal protein production, or will they be irrelevant in a world of test-tube meat?

There are literally tens of thousands of Concentrated (some prefer the term ‘Confined’) Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) spread throughout the world. Normally employed in the raising of chickens, laying hens, turkeys, cattle and pigs, CAFOs are viewed by agribusiness as simply the next step in the creation of a more dynamic and productive way of delivering animal protein to a growing human population. The careful monitoring of bio-rhythms allows for accurate control of animal body temperature, and exactitude in food and water delivery, as a means of maximizing growth. This form of precision farming is, in effect, a logical outcome of industrial, assembly line, techniques – in this case not to produce cars or computers, but cattle and chickens. CAFOs operate on a continuous cycle of production that can be managed so as to produce an exact product at a specific time. Roughly 70 percent of the world’s poultry meat and eggs are produced in CAFOs, as is 50 percent of pig meat. The CAFO model has quickly been extended to the production of seafood. The essence of aquaculture is the close control of fish which are packed into ponds and fed concentrated, and highly regulated, amounts of processed fish, grain and additional supplements.

CAFOs may be seen as a technologically advanced way of producing food in a manner which meets the demands of consumers. But they come with costs. Tony Weis has written extensively about CAFOs in The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming (Zed Books, 2007) and in the forthcoming volume The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock (Zed Books, 2013). Michael Carolan in The Real Cost of Cheap Food (Earthscan, 2011) provides additional insights. Both authors have listed a number of concerns about CAFOs. The crowded conditions in which animals are kept are viewed as cruel. Packing laying hens in battery cages, the small size of which largely prevents movement, is one practice deemed unacceptable. But so too is the suffocation, drowning and crushing of live male layer chicks which are viewed as surplus to requirements by the industry. The de-beaking of birds is often done without an anaesthetic, an extremely painful experience for these animals. Caged pigs suffer foot and leg deformities in having to stand on concrete during their entire lives. Pregnant females are often placed in ‘gestation crates’ for four months of pregnancy, unable to turn around during this period. In slaughterhouses cattle are subject to practices which are often violent, and usually extremely stressful for the animals – something that Jeremy Rifkin wrote about in detail several decades ago in Beyond Beef (Dutton Press, 1992).

The waste matter that is produced in CAFOs is also a matter of considerable concern. When animals are concentrated in a confined space manure accumulates in large volumes. CAFOs are reliant upon antibiotics to control disease and hormones to stimulate growth. Pollutants that arise include residue pesticides and hormones, pathogens and trace elements (including arsenic).While manure can be collected and used to fertilize adjacent paddocks, the toxic chemicals which are contained within can be leached into the soil and into waterways, disrupting normal biological cycles. Wastes in surface water can also affect groundwater. One of the most devastating environmental accidents occurred in North Carolina in 1995 when a CAFO effluent pond spilled into a local river resulting in the death of 10 million fish and skin rashes and temporary cognitive impairment of people in the vicinity of the spill. The greenhouse gases that are emitted by cattle are another cause for concern – this time in relation to global warming. A reduction in meat consumption is called for as a means of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, yet the world is seeing the continued expansion of industrially-farmed cattle. Then, of course, there is the impact on natural resources of the global growth of grain and oilseed monocultures that are essential to the operation of CAFOs.

Air pollution is yet another concern. Something like a quarter of all workers in CAFOs are subject to respiratory illnesses and a range of other health problems. Finally, while some would argue that with careful regulation many of the problems of CAFOs will be overcome, there is evidence that – in an increasingly deregulated system of neoliberal governance and in the face of criticisms that existing ‘green tape’ is getting in the way of profit making – standards are falling, violations are increasing but the state does not have the capacity to monitor and enforce environmental regulations.

The continued commoditization of animals appears to be a direct outcome of a burgeoning global demand for meat. Weis has called this the ‘meatification’ of the diet, one of the main components of the so-called ‘nutrition transition’. Is there an inevitability about CAFO expansion, despite on-going animal welfare, environmental, and public health concerns?

There is another view, one that suggests CAFOs could be a thing of the past, outcompeted by another fully-industrial process – the production of in vitro (test tube) meat. In August 2013 Maastricht University scientist Mark Post created a burger that was made of meat grown in a culture. Post extracted cells from muscle tissue of a living cow and placed the cells in a nutrient-rich substrate. Muscle tissues that grew were ‘harvested’ and mixed with fat and plant-derived colouring to mimic a beef patty. Apparently the burger that was produced tasted very much like a conventional burger. The challenge for Post and his team is to scale-up production, employing an industrial bio-reactor that can deliver large quantities of in vitro beef at a reasonable price for consumers.

Animal rights groups endorse the technology claiming it will overcome many of the problems (mentioned above) associated with meat production – including the possible reduction in animal-generated green-house gases of between 80 and 90 percent. In fact, since 2008, the group People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been offering $1 million to any scientist who can produce chicken meat, in vitro, that has the taste and texture of conventional chicken meat. Their motivation has been to rid the world of chicken-based CAFOs where animals are in total confinement from birth to slaughter.

Some other interesting questions arise: will CAFOs be challenged by in vitro meat production, or will CAFOs continue to grow – alongside the production of test-tube meat – as a response to the burgeoning global demand for animal protein? In other words, will CAFOs remain a potent force in farming? Perhaps CAFOs will continue to provide the better cuts of meat to more affluent consumers, while in vitro meat might be directed to the hamburger trade? The presence of CAFOs has divided rural communities: would their demise see the revitalization of regions as community tensions dissipate and community health improves? Will governments come to recognize that CAFOs externalize their costs in the form of environmental pollution, and begin to re-regulate, forcing compliance upon these operations? The additional costs to the CAFOs might – as some authors argue – demonstrate that the supposed ‘efficiency’ of factory-farmed meat has been greatly exaggerated. Finally, will consumers begin to view CAFOs as an unsatisfactory means of producing animal protein, and embrace in vitro meat as a way forward for humanity? These are interesting and important questions in a technologically-driven world of animal production.

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