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Water Sentinels:
Factory Farms

Factory farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, are a major polluter of America's waterways and a major cause of air pollution in rural communities. Unlike traditional agriculture, factory farms pack hundreds to hundreds of thousands of animals into confinement buildings.

Factory farms generate 500 million tons of manure annually.[1] But, unlike cities that must treat their sewage before discharging it to the environment, CAFOs store their liquefied excrement in large dirt cesspits called lagoons, or in piles of solids called "litter," then spread the raw wastes on surrounding cropland. Ruptured waste pipelines result in large spills, and polluted runoff after heavy rainfall washes waste into waterways. The result is massive fish kills and dangerous bacterial water contamination. Air pollution from factory farms contains poisonous gases such as hydrogen sulfide and creates stupefying odors that sicken rural neighbors.

A Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) with waste lagoons.
Photo: a concentrated animal feeding operation with waste lagoons. Photo: John Klein/Lighthawk.

Factory farms are designed to maximize production at minimal cost without regard for public health, the environment, food safety, rural economies, animal health, or surrounding communities.[2] But this "cheap food" isn't really so cheap, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and imposes enormous costs on society.[3] Corporate-owned factory farm systems and their slaughterhouses are a threat to food safety and are responsible for frequent huge food recalls. Up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used by factory farms to keep the animals alive in their filthy, cramped confinements, contributing to a rising emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threatens human health.[4] Heavily subsidized by taxpayers, factory farms drive down the property values of adjacent homes and farmland by as much as 70 percent in some rural counties.[5]

The independent Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production conducted a comprehensive, fact-based, balanced two-and-a-half-year study of this industrial farm animal production system. Commissioners reported that the factory farm system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment, and the welfare of the animals, and they recommended that significant changes be implemented immediately.[6]

The Sierra Club opposes all permits for new or expanded factory farms and encourages consumers to find safe and sustainable sources for their meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.

Read about Lynn Henning, a Sierra Club activist and Water Sentinel in Michigan, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2010 for her work fighting factory farms.

  1. Environmental Integrity Project, September 2010
  2. Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, September 2010
  3. Union of Concerned Scientists, April 2008
  4. Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, April 2008
  5. The Goldman Environmental Prize, September 2010
  6. Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, April 2008

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