There's No Place for CAFOs in a Regenerative World

by Evan DeMarco on Sep 06, 2022

There's No Place for CAFOs in a Regenerative World

Regenerative farming promises high-quality, nutrient-dense food with significant climate and environmental benefits. You might already know that regenerative farms can trap carbon and restore the rapidly diminishing topsoil layer, among other bonuses. Buying food from regenerative farms is a good way to fight climate change, support local farms and enjoy better nutrition.

There are many factors that set regenerative ranching apart from industrial livestock production. Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, are industrial livestock operations. CAFOs are notorious for producing vast amounts of animal sewage and other pollutants—the very antithesis of what regenerative farming aims to accomplish.

Here’s what you need to know about CAFOs, and why you should avoid them whenever possible.

What is a CAFO?

CAFOs can house hundreds to millions of animals, including dairy cows, hogs and chickens. These industrial operations include open feedlots as well as large, windowless buildings to house the animals. The animals may be restricted to boxes or stalls. Depending on the animal type and location, they are often confined at least 45 days—and often more—per year, in areas without any vegetation. That’s a sad and miserable life for any animal, but the environmental harm it causes is additional cause for concern.

There are different varieties of CAFOS. For instance, poultry operations use dry waste systems, where animal waste is scraped out of the building or moved along conveyor belts. Dairy and hog farms wash waste from the buildings into special storage facilities or lagoons. Finally, feedlots keep animals outdoors in pens, where their waste is left on the ground to wash away into nearby water sources.

CAFOs are notorious for polluting both air and water. Because they require so many resources, they’re unsustainable: these operations must use significant amounts of electricity, water and fuel every day. In turn, these practices harm our natural water sources and contribute to air pollution.

How CAFOs contribute to pollution

CAFOs waste contains a number of nasty substances, including phosphorous, nitrogen, hormones, livestock care chemicals, milkhouse waste, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, heavy metals, ammonia and silage leachate. The untreated waste is stored in structures or pits for up to six months, then spread over farm fields for disposal.

This waste can cause algae blooms, which deplete the oxygen in water and kill marine life. E.coli, salmonella and other pathogens may also be found in CAFOs. These can sicken and kill humans and animals.

When the waste is spread over fields, it creates a prime opportunity for these pollutants to enter the groundwater system, streams and other bodies of water. Storms, spills, burst pipes and overflowing waste structures all contribute to water pollution. Irrigation trucks and tractors may also wash the waste products into the groundwater and other water systems.

Air pollution is another concern. Sometimes air pollution is simply bad odors. However, as manure and other biological materials break down, methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide can be released into the air. This pollution can be deadly to animals and humans alike, especially if fans inside the animal houses break down.

How CAFO pollution can harm human health

These conditions are terrible for the animals, but CAFOs can also harm humans. For example, human exposure to hydrogen sulfide can cause severe neurological problems. Those affected might experience extreme anger, depression, irreversible brain damage, sinusitis, sore throats, burning eyes, headache and nausea, among other issues.

Furthermore, when waste is applied to fields, phosphorus and nitrogen can be absorbed into the groundwater supply. Nitrates are especially harmful in drinking water: elevated levels can lead to a blood disorder commonly known as “blue baby syndrome.” Even small CAFOs produce the equivalent of the waste of 16,000 humans.

These issues are bad enough on their own, but when you consider the massive amount of resources CAFOs consume, their effect on human survival is devastating. CAFOs have to power milkers, tractors, gas motors, pumps, lights, fans and more. They use fuel to transport supplies, waste and animal products, and consume millions of gallons per day just washing waste away.

In a time where climate change is worsening beyond most scientists’ projections, it’s clear that CAFOs are incredibly wasteful. They’re also cruel to the animals and have the potential to seriously sicken or kill both humans and animals.

If you want to support sustainable, nutritious and local food, skip the CAFO-based meat producers. There’s no room for CAFOs in a regenerative world—and voting with your wallet is one of the best ways to get the message across.