Friday, December 12, 2008

Thoughts on CAFO's

Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's) are a big topic these days, and will no doubt continue to be. I offer my thoughts:
  • the vegetarians point to CAFOs and say they're inherently cruel to animals, so people should eat vegetables. That's an extreme position, but it benefits from being logical and consistent.
  • animal rights people point to CAFOs and say, as currently operated, they're cruel, so we need legislation/constitutional provisions to provide more room for chickens, etc. Vegetarians can support such measures because it seems a step on the slippery slope to total banning. Possibly some changes, like the Florida and California initiatives, will relieve the public pressure and concern over mistreatment of animals.
  • good food people say CAFO's create the need to use antibiotics to fight disease and are otherwise dangerous (i.e., a breeding ground for MIRSA in some eyes).
  • locavores say CAFO's are not local.
  • neighbors say CAFO's pollute the air and water. Most notably, once a farming operation becomes so concentrated the resulting manure can't readily be used as fertilizer on the land, you get into waste lagoons and stream pollution.
I assume I wouldn't like a CAFO, having grown on a small dairy/poultry farm. But they result from the logic of economies of scale, which seem to work as well in agriculture as elsewhere. Despite all the efforts of the green community, I'd expect CAFO's to have a history similar to that of other growing industries. Where are the "dark, satanic mills" of yesteryear? Exxon, US Steel, GM, ATT, all had checkered histories in youth, but became more house-broken and acceptable to polite society as they aged, and as activists got government to impose regulations. So too with CAFO's. This domestication process will be aided by the greens:
  • CAFO's are a lot more susceptible to environmental regulation. It's a whole lot easier to regulate one 40,000 cow dairy farm than 400 100 cow farms (for one thing, 400 dairies have a lot more votes, as well as being more familiar and more attractive).
  • CAFO's can probably make more use of new technology. See this link on a $1 mill methane digester at an Oregon dairy. And this Brownfield piece on putting feed lots indoors. Banks will make loans more easily and the government will (until Obama's Secretary takes charge) make EQIP grants.
So, should I live another 20 years, I'd expect to see lots of CAFO's, but I'd also expect to see each one having a full-time job dealing with government regulation.

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