Animal Factory is a fascinating book about the rise of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), commonly referred to as factory farms, in the US. Part expose, part heart-wrenching story, at times Animal Factory reads like a sci-fi horror film complete with microscopic flesh eating parasitic dinoflagellates that dine on both fish and human flesh.
Three CAFOs in three different regions of the US are profiled in the book; a large scale hog farm in North Carolina, a mega-dairy farm in the Yakima Valley in Washington state, and another mega-dairy in Illinois. The story of these CAFOs begins in the early-1990s and is told from the perspective of three individuals, all of whom start out as concerned citizens and end up, years later, as prominent environmental activists in the fight against factory farming. Unlike say, "the Meatrix", which documents what goes on inside these mega farm operations, Animal Factory focuses on the public health, safety, and environmental problems and concerns associated with CAFOs-from the urine and animal waste fumes that are so bad that it literally makes people sick to the high fecal coliform counts in streams from manure that has overflowed its containment lagoons, and possible association with swine flu and bird flu viruses and deaths from e-coli contamination in our food supply.
Importance of Environmental Regulation
Perhaps the biggest horror story however, is that there were absolutely no regulations in place governing the establishment or (more importantly) management of these CAFOs when they first started popping up. Your next door neighbor could decide he was going to start a mega-dairy with 1200 cows, complete with a lagoon several acres in size that holds millions of gallons of liquid waste and there was nothing you or anyone else could do about it from a legal perspective. Other than suffer of course. It didn't matter that the manure lagoon overflowed into your property or contaminated the groundwater so you could no longer drink the water from your well. Nor did it matter that when the dairy "farmer" was spraying the liquified manure on crops to try to get rid of it and the wind blew in your direction, that a fine brown manure mist would cover the walls of your house or the noxious smell of livestock waste would invade your carpets, furniture, and clothing.
Because the emphasis in Animal Factory is on public health and safety rather than how many fish were killed downstream, Animal Factory gets the point across without being too "tree huggerish" or political. As such, it will appeal to a larger audience-even those who may "pooh-pooh" (pun intended) environmental regulations, despite the fact that in the end, the only way for these concerned citizen groups to press legal action was through the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) for violations to the Clean Water Act. Even getting this far took many, many years, which of course underscores the fact that in America and elsewhere, regulation is key to protecting human health and safety, as well as preventing degradation to the environment, whether it's water quality or fish and wildlife.
Competing Interests Animal Factory
also does a good job of showing readers the complex issues surrounding CAFOs from the states' perspectives such as the competing interests of economic development, tourism, and employment, and brings up the idea that the food industry (and unfortunately many consumers) thinks that cheap, plentiful meat is what Americans want and need.
Factory Farms and You
While it's a bit of a read--the book clocks in at 512 pages--Animal Factory is well researched and includes extensive references. More importantly it is a book that will open your eyes about where our food supply comes from and will make you think twice about buying those nicely-packaged pork chops in the meat section of the supermarket come from or even that "organic" glass of milk you're drinking in the belief that it's "better". For the record I do believe organic is better, but not the factory farm definition of organic.
The Future: Death by Manure?
Even if you don't have an interest in where your poultry, eggs, milk, and pork come from, I suspect the horrors of factory farming operations with their attendant manure lagoon problems and more will be in the news more often than not as the word gets out about the environmental nightmares they pose. In fact, you may have recently read about the giant "poop bubbles" at one such factory farm in Indiana or the occasional death by drowning in liquid manure or from being overcome by methane gas fumes.
Stories like these abound when it comes to factory farming operations. The regulations and methods of mega-farming operations are slowly changing, but there's a lot of room for improvement and a big thank you to David Kirby is in order for bringing factory farms to the attention of the American public.