Failure to Regulate CAFOs: 

Abuse of Agricultural Exceptionalism

John Ikerd


The failure of the U.S. government to protect the public from the environmental and public health threats of industrial animal agriculture reflects a misuse and abuse of the historic doctrine of “agriculture exceptionalism.” The doctrine of treating agriculture differently from other sectors of the economy was intended to respect the differences between independent, diversified family farms and industrial manufacturing organizations.[1] Today’s large corporately controlled, specialized agricultural operations are fundamentally different from the farms for which the doctrine was intended.[2] Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are the epitome of today’s industrial agricultural operations.

The misapplication of agricultural exceptionalism to industrial agriculture has allowed the inevitable threats posed by industrial production processes to remain under-regulated, unregulated, or ignored for industrial agriculture in general and CAFOs in particular. Independent family farmers who remain committed to caring for their land and protecting the natural environment are unable to compete economically with their heavily subsidized and under-regulated industrial competitors. In addition, rural communities in farming areas have been decimated economically and socially by the demise of family farms.

 Regardless, the American Farm Bureau Federation, agricultural commodity organizations, U.S. and State Departments of Agriculture, and Land Grant Universities all continue to promote the myth that industrial agriculture is just the modern version of traditional family farming and is worthy of the doctrine of agricultural exceptionalism. This misinformation has misled many family farmers and rural residents into opposing the environmental and public health regulations that would have protected their health, allowed family farms to survive, and preserved a desirable quality of life.

To protect the national public interest, the myth of “Industrial agricultural exceptionalism” must be exposed. Industrial agriculture must be regulated as any other industry that poses comparable threats to the environment and public health from emissions of potentially toxic chemical and biological wastes. 

I.      Misapplication of the doctrine of “agricultural exceptionalism” has been inappropriately applied to industrial agriculture in general and CAFOs in particular.

Agricultural Exceptionalism is commonly defined as “The exemption of agriculture from social, labor, health, and safety legislation which is reinforced by agriculture's unique status in law and society.”[3] This legal doctrine of agricultural exceptionalism is typically associated with exempting agricultural workers from the health and safety regulations that protect other industrial workers. However, the misuse of this doctrine has also exempted agriculture from environmental and public health regulations that apply to industrial operations that pose comparable environmental and public health risks. Consequently, the large industrial operations that dominate American agriculture are allowed to continue polluting the soil, air, and water with potentially toxic quantities of agricultural chemical and biological wastes.

Agriculture in general and farmers in particular have been held in high esteem in most major cultures throughout history.  Philosophers from Confucius to Aristotle ranked farmers high among all classes within society. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.”[4] Adam Smith considered farmers to be the initial producers of all things of actual value. In his last address to Congress, Abraham Lincoln referred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the “people’s department,” suggesting that farmers were the essence of the people of America.

The first U.S. farm bill passed by Congress in 1933 was designed to ensure that farm families received incomes at parity with or equal to non-farm families during the Great Depression. The act was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court because it failed to explain how economic security for family farmers was linked to national public interests.  Congress quickly reintroduced essentially the same bill as an Amendment to the Soil Conservation Act of 1935.  The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 explained that providing economic security for farm families was to be a means of “conserving national resources, preventing the wasteful use of soil fertility, and of preserving, maintaining, and rebuilding the farm and ranch land resources in the national public interest.”[5]

Until well into the 1940s, the vast majority of farms in the U.S. were small enough that virtually all of the day-to-day farm labor could be provided by the farm family—with relatively little assistance from machinery and equipment. A diversity of crop and livestock enterprises were managed as a means of maintaining soil fertility and managing pests. The farms were independently owned and operated to fit the ecological niches in the bioregions where they were located. The farms of the “Dust Bowl” in the 1930s were notable exceptions and suffered the inevitable consequences. The U.S. Farm Bill of 1938 was an attempt to prevent the reoccurrence of this tragedy by providing economic security for family farmers who were committed to serving public interests by caring for land resources—the soil, air, and water. 

Today, the vast majority of agricultural production in the U.S. is accounted for by large, specialized, mechanized, agricultural operations that are dominated, if not controlled, by large corporate agribusinesses. Specialization, standardization, and consolidation are the essential characteristics of industrialization in general and characterize today’s large commercial farming operations. Specialization and standardization allow routinization and mechanization, which reduces the need for skilled farm labor and simplifies the task of farm management. The industrialization of agriculture has allowed smaller independent family farms to be consolidated into larger family-operated farms which are being consolidated into large industrial agricultural operations that are managed or controlled by large agribusiness corporations.

 Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are the epitome of the industrialization of American agriculture. Thousands or tens of thousands of livestock and hundreds of thousands or millions of poultry are crowded into specialized livestock and poultry operations. They are housed in factory-like buildings and are allowed virtually no access to the outdoors or natural environment. Most CAFOs are operated under comprehensive corporate production contracts that dictate all major production practices, including feeding and healthcare. The integrators often maintain ownership of the animals for which the CAFO operator is merely the caretaker. Large corporate processors and integrators increasingly own their own production facilities as well as the animals and operate multiple CAFOs with hired managers and workers instead of dealing with multiple CAFO owners. CAFOs have far more characteristics of industry than farming and increasingly are not even owner-operated businesses.  

Regardless, today’s industrial agricultural operations continue to be subsidized and under-regulated because of the doctrine of agricultural exceptionalism. Today’s industrial agricultural operations have virtually nothing in common with independent family farms on which the doctrine was based, other than most are still owned by families.[6]  The critical differences in environmental, social, and rural economic consequences of family farming and industrial agriculture have been unappreciated or ignored by those entrusted with protecting the natural environment and public health. The national public interests have suffered as a consequence. 

II.    The environmental and public health threats posed by industrial agriculture differ fundamentally from those of independent family farms.[7]

The environmental, public health, and rural economic problems associated with industrial agriculture are associated primarily with concentration—of chemicals, animals, and wastes. All of the chemicals in the agricultural herbicides, fertilizers, and medications for farm animals are present in the natural environment in quantities that nature can accommodate or assimilate. In fact, many of these elements may be essential for ecological health. However, when these chemicals are concentrated into fertilizers, pesticides, and medications they become potentially toxic to humans. When fertilizers, pesticides, and medications are applied in the large quantities associated with intensive cropping operations and concentrated animal feeding operations, they exceed nature’s capacity for utilization, assimilation, or neutralization. As a result, industrial farming operations present far greater environmental and public health risks than did the smaller, geographically dispersed family farming operations they displaced.

For example, a well-function septic tank provides adequate waste treatment for single households in sparsely populated rural areas, whereas households in densely populated towns and cities require sophisticated waste treatment facilities to achieve similar levels of environmental protection. Regulations were, and still are, unnecessary for small and mid-sized diversified family farms that are worthy of agricultural exceptionalism.  However, regulations are absolutely essential to mitigate the negative environmental and public health impacts of industrial farming operations. The concentration of wastes on family farms is more like single households in rural areas and wastes from industrial farming operations are more like tens of thousands of people living in cities.

A 2,499-head hog CAFO, which is not even classified as large and thus required to have a permit, creates as much or more potentially toxic biological and chemical waste as a town of 10,000 people. The EPA requires towns of this size to operate sophisticated waste treatment facilities to protect environmental and public health. CAFOs may not need municipal waste treatment facilities, but they need to be sufficiently regulated to address their inherent threats to environmental and public health. The government regulations that society has been able to impose on industrial agriculture for this purpose have been woefully inadequate because industrial agricultural operations are exempt from regulations imposed on other industries. 

The corn-soybean-CAFOs system is the source of a major portion of agricultural pollution in the U.S. today. This industrial system of production also provides a prime example of industrial agriculture’s proclivity to transform otherwise benign or potentially valuable productive resources into toxic substances that threaten public health. Livestock manure is a valuable and sometimes essential component of diversified farming systems that integrate crop and livestock enterprises. Manure applied in the right amounts at the right time is a valuable resource. Transporting costs for manure are high relative to the nutrient value per unit of manure transported. As a result, it is not economically feasible to return the quantities of manure produced in CAFOs to the fields where the feed grains and forages were grown or to other croplands that are deficient in fertility. The application of manure from CAFOs often exceeds the nutrient needs of crops and nature’s ability to absorb or neutralize the excess.[8]

Many farmers also apply commercial fertilizers in addition to animal manure because the nutrient content and availability of manure are less precisely measurable. For example, approximately half of all nitrogen fertilizer applied by farmers is lost into the environment rather than utilized by crops.[9] Current industrial agricultural practices result in potentially toxic levels of pollution but also waste potentially valuable farm and ranch resources.

Potentially toxic levels of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulate pollutants in the air inside and surrounding CAFOs also is a consequence of the concentration of large numbers of animals in confined spaces. Some of these pollutants are a result of the anaerobic decomposition of manure in pits or large storage structures associated with CAFOs. The health threats associated with dust-borne particulates and pungent odors that create illness due to mental stress are related to levels of concentration of animals in CAFOs. Manure that is dispersed and decomposes under the aerobic conditions of agroecological farming systems does not create toxic compounds that threaten public health.

The same is true for antibiotics and other medications used in animal agriculture. The routine inclusion of medications in the feed rations in CAFOs is a natural consequence of concentrating too many animals in too small spaces. Animals in crowded conditions are at greater risk of biological and viral infections than are animals that have space to move freely and maintain a comfortable distance from others. The routine feeding of antibiotics in stressful living environments provides ideal breeding grounds for organisms to develop antibiotic resistance. In the confined conditions of CAFOs, it is also easy for workers to carry antibiotic bacteria and diseases into the surrounding community. The biosecurity measures common in CAFOs are more about protecting animals than protecting people and are unnecessary for farms that are worthy of agricultural exceptionalism.

Independent family farms worthy of agricultural exceptionalism do not rely on high concentrations of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that make industrial agriculture possible. They rely on diverse crop rotations and integrated crop and livestock systems to maintain soil fertility and manage pests. The farms do not concentrate large numbers of animals in confined spaces but limit animal numbers to those needed to sustain diverse, integrated whole-farm systems—ecologically, socially, and economically. They rely on healthy animal diets and comfortable, humane living environments, rather than routine medication, to keep their animals healthy. They don’t create environments conducive to antibiotic resistance or community spread of animal diseases. They simply don’t create the environmentally related public health threats associated with industrial agriculture and thus don’t need to be regulated.

III.   The failure to regulate industrial agriculture as an industry rather than farming has resulted in the pollution of air and water with potentially toxic chemical and biological wastes, posing threats to environmental and public health.

Industrial agriculture is more economically efficient than traditional family farming. Agricultural industrialization succeeded in reducing production costs and increasing the total production of agricultural commodities in the U.S.  However, even the economic costs it has externalized or imposed on society by its environmental pollution and degradation have been greater than its economic benefits. In addition, the negative social and cultural costs industrial agriculture has imposed on rural communities remain unmeasurable and thus largely ignored.  

For example, the number of “impairments” of Iowa streams, lakes, and wetlands reported to the EPA by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources increased more than four-fold between 1998 and 2020—from 159 to 751.[10] This was a time of rapid expansion of industrial agriculture in Iowa and agriculture is by far the largest source of water pollution in the state of Iowa.[11] More than half of Iowa’s public waters are now classified as polluted or “impaired.”[12] A 2018 review of relevant research concluded, “While one cannot ignore this now extensive scientific evidence, there is every indication that the industry intends business as usual… The industry is fortified by a new anti-nuisance suit law that prevents or severely limits real nuisance damages and seeks to eliminate from consideration evidence-based health effects research.”[13] While the report focused on Iowa, it cited more than 150 scientific studies from many other parts of the US. 

At the national level, the EPA has identified “agricultural nonpoint source pollution as the leading source of water quality impacts on surveyed rivers and streams, the third largest source for lakes, the second largest source of impairments to wetlands, and a major contributor to contamination of estuaries and groundwater.”[14]  Industrial agriculture is widely acknowledged as a major contributor to massive “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and other water bodies.[15] Industrial crop and livestock production are also major sources of groundwater pollution, tainting sources of drinking water in many agricultural areas of the US.[16]

On matters of public health, the world’s most popular weed killer, Roundup, has been identified by the World Health Organization  (WHO) as a “probable carcinogen.”[17] Atrazine, another most commonly used herbicide on US farms, has been identified as a probable endocrine disruptor linked to a variety of adverse health impacts.[18] A 2013 U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention report stated: “Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food-producing animals can harm public health.”[19] The WHO “strongly recommends an overall reduction in the use of all classes of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals.”[20] A 2016 global summit of Heads of State at the United Nations General Assembly, concluded: “Antimicrobial resistance is a problem not just in our hospitals, but on our farms and in our food, too. Agriculture must shoulder its share of responsibility.”[21]

A comprehensive assessment of the total economic external or non-market costs of US food production, including environmental and public health costs, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation concluded, “In 2019, American consumers spent an estimated $1.1 trillion on food. That price tag… does not include the cost of healthcare for the millions who fall ill with diet-related diseases. Nor does $1.1 trillion include the present and future costs of the food system’s contributions to water and air pollution, reduced biodiversity, or greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change.  Take those costs into account and it becomes clear the true cost of the U.S. food system is at least three times as big—$3.2 trillion per year.”[22]

U.S. environmental and public health regulations are clearly inadequate to address even the economic costs of the ecological and public health externalities that industrial agriculture imposes on society. A recent study global conducted by the United Nations concluded, “Our current agrifood systems impose huge hidden costs on our health, the environment and society, equivalent to at least $10 trillion a year.”[23]  These hidden costs represent almost 10 percent of global GDP, which exceeds the percent of GDP spent by global consumers for food.


IV.   The failure to regulate industrial agriculture as an industry reflects a fundamental change in U.S. farm policy priorities, from providing economic security for family farmers to subsidizing industrial agriculture.

The transformation of U.S. agriculture from being dominated by small, diversified, independent family farms to large-scale, specialized, corporately controlled agricultural operations was not an inevitable consequence of new technologies or free markets but of fundamental changes in U.S. agricultural policies. The changes in farm policies began in the late 1960s and continued into the 1970s. The Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act or Farm Bill of 1973 represented an abandonment of the priority of supporting family farms as a means of protecting and maintaining the productivity of farm and ranch resources for the national public benefit. Its stated purpose was “To extend and amend the Agricultural Act of 1970 for the purpose of assuring consumers of plentiful supplies of food and fiber at reasonable prices.”[24] The mantra of the Department of Agriculture during the Nixon/Butz administration of the 1970s was to “plant fencerow to fencerow” and “get big or get out.” America’s “cheap food policies” were not only going to make food more affordable in America; American farmers were going to feed the world.

US farm policymakers logically assumed that industrialized agriculture, aided by evolving mechanical, chemical, and biological technologies, would be more economically efficient than the traditional family farmers they displaced. For example, hybrid seed corn proved a perfect complement to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides to dramatically increase crop yields. Farmers could then abandon diversified crop rotations they had used to maintain fertility and manage pests and adopt specialized monocropped corn or corn-soybean rotations. Specialization facilitated mechanization and simplified farm management, allowing larger farming operations to achieve economies of scale.

The Land Grant University system joined agri-business corporations in providing a constant stream of new industrial technologies that farmers essentially were forced to adopt if they expected to compete and survive economically. Agricultural economists described the continual stream of new technologies that forced farmers to substitute capital, including purchased inputs and hired labor, for intensive farm management and skilled labor, as a “technology treadmill.”[25] Agricultural economist Willard Cochran referred to this as “the curse of agricultural abundance.”[26]

However, large, industrial farming operations have the same fundamental flaws as other large industrial operations. As farms become larger and more specialized to gain economic efficiency, they lose their resilience or ability to absorb shocks and survive disruptions. In agriculture, the economic risks are even greater than in most industries. Unpredictable weather and outbreaks of pests and diseases in crop and livestock operations result in large production risks. Highly volatile and unpredictable agricultural prices magnify market risks. Large industrial farming operations also require large outlays of capital for land, buildings, and equipment, frequently financed with borrowed money. The risks inherent in large, industrial farming operations were laid bare by the COVID pandemic of 2020, which threatened the availability and affordability of food in America.[27]

The US government responded to the lack of resilience of industrial agriculture with an arsenal of farm policies designed to absorb the inherent economic risks of industrial agriculture. Until recently, a variety of commodity price support programs had been the primary means of offsetting agricultural price risk. Several attempts have been made since the 1930s to return agriculture to the market economy but have ultimately failed. Farm policies that gave farmers an option of accepting production controls and supported prices or unrestricted production for free markets were a significant contributing factor to the farm financial crisis of the 1980s.

Production cuts forced by financial pressures and stronger national and global economies allowed prices for agricultural commodities to rebound during the 1990s. This set the stage for another attempt to return American agriculture to the market economy. The Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 was commonly referred to as the “Freedom to Farm” Act. This act allowed prices for farm commodities to drop to market clearing levels during times of surplus, with differences between market prices and government support prices offset by government payments to farmers. 

 At this point, the process of industrializing American agriculture was considered to be complete. The percentage of U.S. employment provided by farming had dropped from more than 25% in the 1930s to less than 2% in the 1990s.[28] By 1997, more than 70% of total US agricultural production was accounted for by less than 10% of US farms--larger industrial farms.  However, surplus agricultural production had again depressed commodity prices by the late 1990s. Congressional representatives from states with major agricultural sectors dominated the Senate and House of Representatives Agricultural Committees and were quick to abandon the free-market experiment of 1996. Persistent attempts have failed to limit deficiency payments to amounts consistent with traditional family-sized farms. The government was and has remained committed to absorbing the inherent production and market risks of large industrial agricultural operations. The industrial system of agricultural production likely would not have survived the 1980s if taxpayers had refused to absorb the risks inherent in industrial agriculture.

Government subsidies for industrial agriculture have continued unabated since the 1990s. The 2014 Farm Bill strengthened the incentives for farmers to enroll in the Revenue Protection Crop Insurance Program by eliminating the countercyclical payment programs that had been in the 2008 Farm Bill.[29] The Agricultural Risk Management Act of 2000, allowed crop producers to insure crop prices as well as yields for eligible commodities.[30] Government programs would compensate farmers and owners of farmland for economic losses through insurance companies, rather than direct payments from the government.[31] Government subsidies covering about 60% of the insurance premiums plus the costs of administering the program would be less noticeable.[32] There are no effective limits to the number of acres of insured crops or total program payments under the Revenue Protection Crop Insurance Program.

The organization of agricultural operations as Limited Liability Corporations allows virtually unlimited expansion of industrial farming operations, with US taxpayers absorbing most of the risks.[33] Between 1995 and 2019, the top 10% of farm program recipients received 78% of $223.5 billion in total payments by the USDA.[34] The largest 1% received 26% of the payments, averaging about $1.7 million per farming operation. Fifty people on Forbes’ 400 list of wealthiest Americans received large farm subsidies, while 62% of US farmers received none.[35] Like the big banks, big farms have become “too big to fail.”


V.    Independent family farmers who still care for the land and protect the natural environment cannot compete economically with the heavily subsidized, under-regulated industrial agricultural operations. Farm families and rural communities have suffered the consequences of failed farm policies.

The industrialization of American agriculture is not a matter of diversified, independent family farms not being able to compete with industrial agriculture in free markets. It is a matter of the inability of independent family farms not being able to compete with the heavily subsidized, net revenue-insured, corporately controlled industrial agricultural operations. The once-promising future of diversified, independent family farms was destroyed by the misapplication of the doctrine of agricultural exceptionalism to industrial agriculture.

The number of farms in the U.S. increased from less than one million in 1850 to almost seven million during the Great Depression of the 1930s.[36] Farm numbers dropped sharply as tractors replaced horses and affordable synthetic fertilizers became available following World War II and had dropped to less than three million before the change in farm policies in the late 1960s. Farm numbers since that time have been in a slow decline and remain at about two million. However, there have been political changes in the USDA definition of farms that have added significantly to farm numbers over the years, as some government funds are allocated to states based on their number of farms.

More important, however, is the change in the basic characteristics of the remaining smaller, diversified family farms. Prior to the 1970s, farm families derived most of their household incomes from the farm.[37] Beginning in the 1970s, however, off-farm income began to make a major contribution to farm household income levels. With government farm programs shifting to subsidize larger industrial agricultural operations, the smaller family farms were forced to rely increasingly on off-farm employment to survive. In recent years, about half of all operations classified as “farms” by the USDA have lost money on their farming operations. They appear unwilling to give up the way of life they associate with farming. They willingly subsidize their family farms with off-farm employment. 

 In 2022, only 37 percent of farmers with primary occupations other than farming had positive income from farming, and among those with positive farm incomes, their farms contributed only 8 percent to their total median household income. For farmers whose principal occupation was farming, 50 percent had positive farm income and farming contributed 24 percent of their total household income. The 86 percent of commercial farms, farms with over $350,000 in annual cash sales, had positive farm income in 2022, and farm income accounted for 82 percent of their total median household income.[38] In other words, the smaller family farms that have survived nearly 50 years of government subsidies and bailouts on industrial farming operations have been forced to rely on off-farm employment to support their families. 

The consequences of the government’s abandonment of family farming have been similarly devastating for rural economies and communities. The negative effects of agricultural industrialization on rural economics were evident by the 1960s. In September 1966, President Johnson established the President’s National Advisory Committee on Rural Poverty. [39] Its charge was “to make a comprehensive study and appraisal of the current economic situations and trends in American rural life, as they relate to the existence of income and community problems of rural areas.”[40] The committee delivered its report to the President a year later: “Rural poverty is so widespread and so acute, as to be a national disgrace.” [41] The report concluded, “Our programs for rural America are woefully out of date.” [42] They wrote, “We have not yet adjusted to the fact that in the brief period of 15 years, from 1950 to 1965, new machines and new methods increased farm output in the United States by 45 percent and reduced farm employment by 45 percent. Nor is there adequate awareness that during the next 15 years, the need for farm labor will decline by another 45 percent.[43] 

The commission recommended, “that the United States adopt and put into effect immediately a national policy designed to give the residents of rural America equality of opportunity with all other citizens.” [44]  Recommendations of the National Advisory Committee on Rural Poverty concerning revising social welfare to address the negative economic impacts of industrial agriculture. However, general social welfare programs and the special rural development programs implemented through USDA have continued to be woefully inadequate to address the negative impacts of agricultural industrialization on rural America.[45] From a 2007 review of 51 peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject: “Social scientists have a long history of concern with the effects of industrialized farming on communities. Recently, the topic has taken on new importance as corporate farming laws in a number of states are challenged by agribusiness interests. We evaluate studies investigating the effects of industrialized farming on community well-being from the 1930s to the present… The results demonstrate that public concern about industrialized farms is warranted.”[46]

A national conference was convened in 2018 to evaluate changes in rural America during the 50 years following “The People Left Behind” report. The participants noted that “the safety net developed during and after the War on Poverty to help the least advantaged in this society has changed over the past 20 years in ways that have kept the poverty rate relatively stable, but that have also provided a smaller share of its benefits to those who are in deep poverty (incomes less than half the poverty line).”[47] A 2017 Wall Street Journal analysis of rural policy had reached similar conclusions. The authors concluded, “Rural America is the new ‘inner city.’” [48]“In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings.”[49]—below the inner-cities.

The negative economic and societal impacts of industrial agriculture on rural communities are inherent consequences of concentrating total agricultural production among fewer, larger farming operations. The continued expansion of industrial agriculture in a community results in the displacement or reliance on off-farm employment of the remaining independent family farmers and the demise of local businesses that are supported by family farms. Farming communities in select locations have survived economically by becoming tourist destinations or bedroom communities. With the remaining commercial farmers increasingly under the control of large agri-food corporations, local communities lose control over local natural and human resources and local economies. They lose the ability to protect their communities from economic extraction and exploitation as well as environmental pollution.

Effective government regulation of industrial agricultural operations would slow and eventually reverse the trend toward total agricultural industrialization. In the absence of heavily subsidized, under-regulated competitors, diversified, family farms could once again become economically competitive. Economically viable family farms create more, rather than fewer, quality farm and non-farm employment opportunities in rural areas. They are good neighbors and community members as well as responsible stewards of the land and the natural environment. Such farms are worthy of agricultural exceptionalism.


VI.  The myth of “industrial agricultural exceptionalism” is employed politically by the American Farm Bureau Federation and agri-business corporations and is supported by government agencies, and agricultural universities in defending industrial agriculture from effective government regulation.  

The myth of “industrial agricultural exceptionalism” is perhaps promoted most effectively by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), which claims to represent the 2 million farms in the U.S.[50]  It ranks in the top 5% of lobbying organizations in Washington DC, spending more than $2.1 million on lobbying in 2022 and $1.1 in the off-election year of 2023.[51] While the organization claims to represent the interest of farmers its 5.9 million AFBF membership includes nearly three times the total number of farmers in the U.S. In addition to lobbying, the Farm Bureau is a multi-billion-dollar network of for-profit insurance companies that make up the third-largest insurance group in the United States. FB insurance customers are required to become members of the AFBF.

The Farm Bureau was founded in 1920 during a time of agrarian populism which corporate agribusiness saw as a radical farmers’ movement that threatened their dominance of agricultural processing and distribution.  The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 had provided federal funds to complement county and state funds to hire county agents to encourage and help local farmers to adopt the latest scientific farming methods being developed by the Land Grant Universities. To ensure the credibility and relevance of their programs, county agents were required to work with local farm leaders and groups of farmers. The Farm Bureau saw this as an opportunity to exert influence not only at the local level but also at the state and national levels through this new Cooperative Extension Service.

The objectives of the AFBF organization were made clear in statements at the time of its establishment, "’To keep control of our food products,’ until they reach consumers and to stop any policy ‘that will align farmers with the radicals of other organizations.’" [52] Initial funding for the AFBF came from the Lackawanna Railroad, the Rockefeller-backed General Education Board, and several other large agricultural corporations. The Chicago Board of Trade also provided cash grants of $1000 to each of the first 100 Farm Bureaus formed.  They were particularly concerned that farmers would form unions to negotiate for more favorable prices. During the 1930's the AFBF championed the doctrine of agricultural exceptionalism to shield the industrial agriculture operations of labor laws that applied to other industries. They continued this strategy and have a long record of promoting state legislation to severely restrict organized labor. They have also extended their arguments for agricultural exceptionalism beyond farm labor to shield industrial agriculture from effective environmental and public health regulations.

The lobbying efforts of AFBF have been complemented by other large corporate agribusinesses and major agricultural commodity organizations, including the National Corn Growers, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Association, National Poultry Association, and National Milk Producers Federation. It is easier for these large agribusinesses to buy farm commodities from a small number of large agricultural producers rather than deal with many small family farmers. The commodity organizations are interested in promoting maximum production of their specific commodity and encourage their producers to specialize in their specific commodity and expand the size of their operations. All of these major lobbying organizations benefit economically from and use their political power to promote the continuing industrialization of American agriculture.  Together, they spent $165 million lobbying the U.S. Congress in 2023, with the AFBF topping the list of spenders.[53]

This does not include lobbying at state and local levels of government. In major agricultural states, no farm legislation can make it through agricultural committees, and thus even be considered for a vote, unless it is first approved by lobbyists for the state Farm Bureau and locally-prominent corporate agribusinesses. In some sense, the Farm Bureau is more politically powerful than the governor in laws and regulations related to agriculture. The governor can only veto legislation that has been passed by state legislators. The Farm Bureau can veto legislation before it can ever be considered by lawmakers.

Their lobbying not only promotes government subsidies for industrial agriculture but also attempts to shield industrial agriculture from regulations applied to other industries that pose similar environmental and public health threats. State Farm Bureaus actively oppose any candidate who expresses concerns about the industrialization of agriculture. County Farm Bureaus oppose local ordinances and seek to remove local officials who try to regulate or even speak out against industrial agriculture—specifically, local efforts to regulate CAFOs. The lobbying organizations also fund expensive public relations or propaganda campaigns that proclaim their support for independent family farms. They rely on the doctrine of agricultural exceptionalism to gain political and public support for policies that continue to decimate family farms and destroy the economies of rural communities.


VII. The failure to effectively regulate industrial animal agriculture to protect the environment and public health threatens the future of animal agriculture in general and the status of farming as an occupation worthy of exceptionalism.

CAFOs are touted by the industrial agricultural establishment as the future of animal agriculture. Even if the problems and shortcomings are admitted they claim there are no credible alternative means of keeping retail prices affordable and producing enough high-quality protein for a growing global population. It’s far easier to borrow money to build and operate CAFOs than to start a diversified farming operation. The government will ensure the repayment of loans for CAFOs, with an easy-to-get promise of a corporate contract that shows a positive cash flow. This allows banks to make loans without taking significant risks, which lowers the interest rates they can charge. A young farmer with on-farm experience who wants to borrow money for a small, diversified high-value crop and livestock operation will have a hard time finding a banker even willing to look at his or her financial plan.

However, the young farmers who take out large loans to build CAFOs are typically locking themselves into financial commitments that will require at least 20 years to fulfill. Decades of experience with contracting have confirmed that confinement buildings often become obsolete long before they are paid off, requiring additional loans for future renovations. Perhaps an even greater risk associated with investments in CAFOs is that the CAFO system of production in general could become obsolete before loans are paid off. With growing public awareness of the negative environmental, social, and public health consequences of CAFOs, an increasing number of Americans are choosing vegetarian or vegan diets to avoid CAFO products.

One of the most powerful political movements opposing CAFOs today is the animal rights/animal welfare movement. The mission of the animal welfare movement is to prevent the inhumane treatment of animals in the CAFOs. Welfare concerns are linked primarily to crowding too many animals in too small spaces to allow the animals to exhibit normal behaviors. These large, crowded facilities also tend to result in a mental detachment of workers from the animals as living beings, fostering abusive treatment. Whereas the animal welfare movement seeks to eliminate CAFOs, the animal rights movement is philosophically opposed to killing or any human use of animals and would eliminate animal agriculture, entirely.

The global movement to mitigate climate change may prove to be the most powerful ally of the other groups who are striving to greatly reduce or eliminate reliance on animal agriculture for other reasons. Experts on the subject disagree on specifics, but most estimates credit agriculture in total with about 15% of human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions—about the same as transportation.[54] Animal agriculture in particular is a major contributor of methane and nitric oxide, which are far more powerful greenhouse gasses than carbon dioxide.

Quoting a study by a panel of experts on climate change commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), the purpose was "to help raise the attention… to the very substantial contributions of animal agriculture to climate change and air pollution, to land, soil and water degradation, and to the reduction in biodiversity.”[55] Another FAO panel of experts focused on changes in human diets required to “sustain a healthy planet.”  They describe a “universal healthy reference diet, based on an increase in consumption of healthy foods (such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts), and a decrease in consumption of unhealthy foods (such as red meat, sugar, and refined grains).[56] Animal agriculture is targeted as a major cause of global climate change as well as other critical global problems.

The problems of industrial animal agriculture are systemic problems that cannot be solved without fundamentally changing the system. The basic problem is that the economic efficiencies of CAFOs depend on crowing too many animals in such small spaces that air and water pollution and public health risks are inevitable. In 2008, a group of animal agriculture experts assembled by the Pew Charitable Trust  Commission concluded,” Tweaking the current monoculture confinement operations... will be very useful in the short term, but as energy, water, and climate resources undergo dramatic changes, it is the Commission’s judgment that U.S. agricultural production will need to transition to much more biologically diverse systems, organized into biological synergies that exchange energy, improve soil quality, and conserve water and other resources.”[57]

Family-sized, diversified crop and livestock farms are only minimally responsible for agriculture’s contribution to air and water pollution and concerns about animal welfare. Well-managed diversified crop and livestock and pasture-based livestock and poultry operations don’t rely heavily on commercial fertilizers and pesticides and don’t crowd animals in confined spaces or concentrate more waste in one place than nature can absorb. Their contributions to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are largely offset by the collection of carbon dioxide and other elements from the air by the green plants that they eat to produce meat, milk, and eggs. The total ecological, social, and economic costs of these biologically diverse family farms are far less than the ecological, social, and economic costs of CAFO monocultures. CAFOs would not have been able to displace biologically diverse family farms without generous government subsidies and woefully inadequate government regulations. [58]

The arguments by defenders of industrial agriculture that such regulations would cause dramatic increases in retail food prices and that only industrial agriculture is capable of meeting global food needs are simply not true.  Most of the economic advantages of CAFOs and other industrial agricultural operations result from routinization and mechanization which simplifies management.[59]  This allows each owner/integrator/investor to manage or hire managers and realize the profits from far units of production than farmers with more diverse and management-intensive operations.   For example, even if the cost per unit of a CAFO system is higher than in an alternative farming system, the producer/integrator can accept a lower profit per head or cwt. produced to more than offset their higher cost per unit and still make more profits than the operator of the alternative system.  In addition, economic advantages that are significant at the producer level are often minimal at the retail level. For example, a 285 lb. hog will result in about 150 pounds of retail pork. So, a $15 per head advantage for a hog CAFO operator would only amount to 10 cents per pound of pork at the retail level. With average pork prices of $3.00 per pound, this would amount to only a 3.3% higher retail price for the non-CAFO pork. The primary disadvantage of independent alternative pork producers today is a lack of competitive markets and a lack of alternatives to the industrial systems of processing and distribution.     

 In addition, several global studies have verified that industrial agriculture in not feeding the world and is not needed to feed the world in the future. A 2016 study by an International Panel of Experts on Sustainability-Food (IPES) reviewed and cited more than 350 sources in support of its indictment of industrial agriculture and its call for fundamental change. They concluded, “Today's food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water, and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.”[60]

They concluded, “What is required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agroecosystems, and secure livelihoods. Data shows that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed. Diversified agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.”[61]

Olivier De Schutter, leader of the IPES panel of experts, stated, “It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. The way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political power, and thus their ability to influence the governance of food systems. Simply tweaking industrial agriculture will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates. We, as a society, must change our political priorities.”[62] 

Government officials currently lack the confidence or courage to confront the industrial agricultural establishment by attempting to regulate agriculture. They are intimidated by the American Farm Bureau Federation, commodity groups, and agribusiness and are reluctant to challenge the government agencies and public universities that tout CAFOs as the future of animal agriculture. The myth of industrial agricultural exceptionalism makes it easy for them to rationalize the lack of moral courage by claiming they are defending family farmers against government overreach. Agricultural workers should be protected at least as well as workers in other industries. People who live near CAFOs and other industrial agricultural operations should be protected at least as well as those who live near manufacturing plants with similar potentially toxic emissions. And, the manure produced in CAFOs should go through treatment processes with results at least similar to the requirements for sewage treated my municipalities that produce similar quantities of potentially toxic biological wastes.  Industrial animal agriculture quite simply is not worthy of the doctrine of agricultural exceptionalism.


[1] Danielle Diamond, Loka Ashwood, Allen Franco, Lindsay Kuehn, Aimee Imlay, and Crystal Boutwell Agricultural Exceptionalism, Environmental Injustice, and U.S. Right-to-Farm Laws

September 2022, 52, ELR 10727, Issue 9.

[2] Charlotte E. Blattner and Odile Ammann,  Agricultural Exceptionalism and Industrial Animal Food Agricultural Exceptionalism and Industrial Animal Food Production: Exploring the Human Rights Nexus Production: Exploring the Human Rights Nexus, Journal of Food Law & Policy Journal of Food Law & Policy Volume 15 Number 2 Article 9, 2019.  

[3] Jessica Guarino, The Injustices of Agricultural Exceptionalism: A History and Policy of Erasure, 27 3 Drake Journal of Agricultural Law 21 (Fall, 2022) (168 Footnotes)

[4] This Old Farm,  after 240 years, Jefferson’s words on agriculture are more relevant than ever,

[5] Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, Pub. L. No. 75-430, § 2, 52 Stat. 31.   

[6] Danielle Diamond, Loka Ashwood, Allen Franco, Lindsay Kuehn, Aimee Imlay, and Crystal Boutwell Agricultural Exceptionalism, Environmental Injustice, and U.S. Right-to-Farm Laws

September 2022, 52, ELR 10727, Issue 9.

[7] Substantial portions of this section from, John Ikerd, Toward Sustainable Animal Agriculture, Chapter 11, in Industrial Farm Animal Production, the Environment and Public Health, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press, anticipated, August 2024.

[8] Chris Jones, Make America MRTN Again, University of Iowa, Friday, June 21, 2019,

[9] Jenessa Duncombe, Index Suggests That Half of Nitrogen Applied to Crops Is Lost, Eos,

  23 August 2021 .

[10] Iowa’s Section 303(d) Impaired Waters Listings, Iowa Dep’t of Nat. Res., .

[11] See generally id.; Iowa’s Nutrient Budget, Iowa Dep’t of Nat. Res. (2005),

[12] Iowa’s Section 303(d) Impaired Waters Listings, supra note 90; 2016 305(b) Assessment Summary, Iowa Dep’t of Nat. Res.,  (last visited Apr. 23, 2022).

[13] James Merchant & David Osterberg, The Explosion of CAFOs In Iowa And Its Impaction On Water Quality And Public Health ii (2018).

[14] Polluted Runoff; Non-Point Source: Agriculture, EPA,  (last visited May 22, 2022).

[15] Dead Zone, Nat. Geographic Society, /  (last visited April 20, 2022).

[16] Merchant & Osterberg, supra note 93 at i.  

[17] Daniel Cressey, Widely Used Herbicide Linked to Cancer, Nature Mag. (Mar. 25, 2015), .

[18] U.S. Env’t Prot. Agency, Atrazine Chemical Summary, U.S. Epa Toxicity And Exposure Assessment For Children’s Health 1 (2007).

[19] Ctr. For Disease Control And Prevention, Antibiotic Resistance Threats In The U.S., Department Of Health And Human Services 37 (2013).

[20] Christian Lindmeier, Stop Using Antibiotics in Healthy Animals to Prevent the Spread of Antibiotic Resistance, WHO (Nov. 7, 2017), .

[21] Press Release, General Assembly, High Level Meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance, (Sept. 21, 2016).

[22] True Cost of Food: Measuring What Matters to Transform the U.S. Food

System, The Rockefeller Found.,  (last visited Apr, 23, 2022). 

[23] UN Sustainable Development Group, Hidden costs of global agrifood systems worth at least $10 trillion, November 2023,

[24] Agricultural and Consumer Protection Act of 1973, Pub. L. No. 93-86, 87 Stat. 221.

[25] Technology treadmill, Wikipedia,  (last visited Apr. 23, 2022).

[26] See generally Willard A. Cochran, The Curse of American Agricultural Abundance: A Sustainable Solution (2003).

[27] Bridget Balch, 54 Million People in America Face Food Insecurity During The Pandemic. It Could Have Dire Consequences For Their Health, Am. Ass’n of Med. Colleges, (Oct. 15, 2020),

[28] Geoffrey S. Becker, Farm Commodity Programs: A Short Primer, CRS Report for Congress, Order Code RS20848 CR-1, CR-5 (2002).

[29] Crop Ins., supra note 28.

[30] History, Crop Ins., (last visited Apr. 23, 2022).

[31] Rich and Famous Get Taxpayers’ $9 billion; Report, CBS News (Nov. 15, 2011),

[32] Reduce Subsidies for the Crop Insurance Program, Cong. Budget Off. (Dec. 13, 2018), .

[33] See generally Revenue Protection, Farm Credit Serv. of Am.  (last visited Apr. 23, 2022).

[34] Commodity Subsidies in the United States Totaled $223.5 Billion from 1995-2019, Env’t Working Grp.,  (last visited Apr. 23, 2022).

[35]  Chris Edwards, Agricultural Subsidies, Downsizing the Fed. Gov’t (Apr. 16, 2018),

[36] US Department of Agricu, Economic Research Service, The number of U.S. farms continues slow decline; Farms, Average Land in Farms, and Average Acres Per Farm, 1850 to 2022,

[37]  Bubela, H.J. 2016. "Off-farm Income: Managing Risk in Young and Beginning Farmer Households." Choices. Quarter 3. Available online:

[38] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Farm Household Well-being: Farm Household Income Estimates, November 30, 2023.

[39] Edward T Breathitt, The People Left Behind: A Report by the President’s National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty vi, (1967).

[40] Id.

[41] Id. at ix.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] Id. at xi.

[45] John Ikerd, A Fair Deal for Rural America, 10 J. of Agric., Food Sys., and Cmty. Dev. 5, 7 (2010).

[46] Linda Lobao & Curtis Stofferahn, The Community Effects of Industrialized Farming: Social Science Research and Challenges to Corporate Farming Laws, 25 Agric. And Hum. Values 219 (2007).

[47] Bruce Weber, Fifty Years After The People Left Behind: The Unfinished Challenge of Reducing Rural Poverty, 34 IRP Focus 3, 4 (2018). .

[48] Janet Adamy & Paul Overberg, Rural America is the New ‘Inner City’, Wall St. J. (May 26, 2017), .

[49] Id.

[50] Wikipedia contributors, "American Farm Bureau Federation," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 4, 2024).

[51] Top Secrets, Following the Money in Politics, American Farm Bureau Federation, .

[52] Save the Illinois River, “The Enemy Within, the American Farm Bureau Federation,” January 24, 2017.

[53] Madison McVan, Agribusiness spent a record-breaking $165 million on federal lobbying last year, Investigate Midwest. February 16, 2023.

[54]Pierce Nahigyan, “How Much Does Agriculture Contribute To Global Warming?” FOOD, February 9, 2016. .

[55] The Livestock, Environment, and Development Initiative, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2006, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,”

[56] Food in the Anthropocene—the EAT-LANCET Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainably Produced Foods, Executive Summary, 2019, LANCET .

[57] Pew Commission, “Putting Meat on the Table,” 55.

[58] John Ikerd, “Farm and Food Policies for a Sustainable Future,” 6 Bus. Entrepreneurship & Tax L. Rev.. 2022.  .

[59] Ikerd, J. (2023). THE ECONOMIC PAMPHLETEER: Economies of scale in food production. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 12(2), 155–158.

[60] IPES, “Uniformity to Diversity,” 3.

[61] IPES, Uniformity to Diversity,” 3.

[62] Olivier De Schutter, quoted in, “'Overwhelming' Evidence Shows Path is Clear: It's Time to Ditch Industrial Agriculture for Good,” Andrea Germanos, Common Dreams, June 2, 2016.  .