With Factory Farms, there is no Middle Ground[1]

John Ikerd[2]

We are slowly winning the war against factory farms, even though we are obviously not winning every battle. The recent exposé of factory farming in The Chicago Tribune[3] is but the latest in a continuing barrage of negative publicity, reflecting growing public concerns about how America’s meat, milk, and eggs are produced.[4],[5] The inhumane treatment of animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) tends to capture much of the public attention. However, Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the multitude of environmental, social, and rural economic problems that invariably arise from the industrial approach to animal production – commonly called factory farming. In reality, factory farms have far more in common with factories than real farms.

There are numerous well-documented problems associated with CAFOs. They pollute the air with noxious odors containing dozens of toxic substances, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and dust particles carrying a variety of chemical and biological contaminants. CAFOs have polluted thousands of miles of streams and countless ground sources of drinking water with excess nitrogen and phosphorus, antibiotics, antibiotic resistant bacteria and toxic biological organisms originating in animal manure. While air and water pollution typically are treated as environmental issues, the pollution from CAFOs represent significant, well-documented risks to public health.

Excess nitrogen in drinking water can kill babies and cause severe health problems for vulnerable adults. Antibiotic resistant bacteria and other biological contaminants originating from CAFOs include E-Coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria, and Campylobacter. These pollutants not only affect the health of workers and neighbors of CAFOs but can also contaminate drinking water and food products consumed by people living in rural municipalities and distant cities. Growing multi-antibiotic resistance bacteria, most commonly associated with the deadly MRSA, could well be the Achilles Heel of CAFOs. Antibiotic resistance destroys the ability of antibiotics to combat infectious diseases and ultimately could reverse the single most important advancement in modern medicine.

While factory farms are often touted as the future of agriculture and a logical strategy for rural economic development, decades of rural economic and social reality provide compelling evidence of the direct opposite. Whenever and wherever family farms have been replaced with CAFOs, 90% or more of the independent family livestock and poultry producers have been driven out of business. This has not been a simple matter of competitive markets replacing inefficient family farmers with more efficient CAFOs. Corporate agribusinesses use their contractual arrangements with CAFO operators to manipulate markets in ways that prevent independent farmers from even having access to competitive markets.

CAFOs may increase local production, but it takes people, not just production, to support rural communities. People buy clothes, shoes, cars, and haircuts on Main Street; serve in volunteer fire departments, go to local churches, and send their kids to local schools. Factory farms gain their economic advantage by employing fewer people in lower-paying jobs. We don’t need sophisticated economic impact assessment models to tell us what factory farms do to rural communities. Whenever and wherever family farms have been replaced with factory farms, rural economies and social communities invariably wither and often die.

People in rural communities are led to believe they must suffer the negative environmental, social, and economic consequences of factory farming because American farmers have an ethical responsibility to help “feed the world.” Again, this is pure propaganda. First, American agriculture isn’t even feeding all Americans. We have a higher percentage of “food insecure” people in the U.S. today than in the 1960s. Most people are hungry because they are poor and poor people can’t compete economically with the market demand for biofuels and food exports to emerging wealthy classes in developing countries. Second, contrary to popular belief, food for more than 70% of the people in the world still comes from small, subsistence family farms. Developing countries have learned the lessons of the Green Revolution. They don’t want or need factory farms to displace their small farmers and leave their poor people hungry while production from factory farms is exported to more profitable markets elsewhere in the world.

Animal welfare has garnered most of the negative factory farms publicity, perhaps because it goes to the heart of the factory farm controversy. The treatment of farm animals ultimately is an ethical or moral question, not a question of cost-benefit ratios or productivity. In CAFOs, animals are treated as inanimate mechanisms in a factory, not as living, sentient beings in a herd or flock. The fundamental questions are whether it is ethically or morally right for hogs to spend their lifetime in crates so small they cannot even turn around; whether laying hens should be kept in cages with each having space smaller than a sheet of writing paper; whether farm animals in general should be deprived of the ability to express the innate needs of their species – regardless of the economic implications. People obviously will continue to disagree about the ethics of killing and eating animals, but there is a growing public consensus that CAFOs are the epitome of inhumane treatment of farm animals. It’s a matter of ethics and morality.

The same ethical arguments can be made, and should be made, concerning the negative environmental, social, and rural economic impacts of factory farms. The right to farm was never meant to include a right to threaten your neighbors’ health or well-being by polluting their air and water – regardless of the economic benefits of doing so. Farmers have a moral responsibility to consider the health and well-being of their workers, their neighbors, children in nearby schools, and consumers who ultimately buy and eat the meat, milk, and eggs they produce. Rural communities are not just places where corporations should be allowed to use factory farms to extract the wealth while leaving their chemical and biological waste behind. It is morally unacceptable for corporate shareholders and few local individuals to become wealthy by destroying rural communities – economically, socially, and culturally. The fact that all of these things are still legal does not make any of them morally or ethically right.

The scientific evidence supporting the indictment of factory farms for crimes against nature and rural communities is clear, compelling, in some cases overwhelming. In fact, I think it can be misleading to cite a few specific studies when there is so much scientific documentation of the environmental, social, economic, and public health problems associated with factory farms. I have started relying instead of “meta-studies” which cite the results of dozens or hundreds of individual studies to draw generalizable conclusions. For example, an extensive 2½-year study of “industrial farm animal production” was commissioned by a highly-reputable, non-partisan organization, the Pew Charitable Trust. Their 2008 report concluded: “The current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves.”[6]

This prestigious commission included a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, along with academic, farming, and industry representatives. In addition to reviewing hundreds of documents, they took testimony from experts from around the country. They concluded: “the negative effects of the IFAP system are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to ignore. Significant changes must be implemented and must start now.” Five years later, in 2013, an assessment of the industry’s response to the Pew Report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health indicated that few if any positive changes had been made. Meanwhile the scientific evidence supporting the initial indictment of IFAPs has continued to grow.[7]

With respect to economic impacts, a 2009 Pew report concluded: “Economically speaking, studies over the past 50 years demonstrate that the encroachment of industrialized agriculture operations upon rural communities, results in lower relative incomes for certain segments of the community and greater income inequality and poverty, a less active “Main Street,” decreased retail trade, and fewer stores in the community.”[8] With respect to social impacts, a 2006 study commissioned by the State of North Dakota Attorney General’s Office reviewed 56 socioeconomic studies that consistently “found detrimental effects of industrialized farming on many indicators of community quality of life, particularly those involving the social fabric of communities.”[9] The only kinds of economic development attracted to “factory farming communities” are other environmentally polluting and socially degrading industries.

Meta-studies are not updated frequently because original studies are more highly valued in academic communities. However, more recent studies continue to confirm earlier conclusions regarding the negative impacts of CAFOs. With respect to food safety, recalls of food products of animal origin contaminated with salmonella, listeria, Campylobacter, and E-Coli, even if not yet routine, have become far from uncommon.[10] Studies consistently have shown that significant percentages of livestock and poultry products in retail food markets are contaminated with a variety of infectious bacteria.[11] A large percentage of bacteria found in these products have been resistant to multiple antibiotics, including MRSA.[12] A 2013 U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention concluded: “Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food-producing animals can harm public health… Use of antibiotics in food-producing animals allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive while susceptible bacteria are suppressed or die. Resistant bacteria can be transmitted from food-producing animals to humans through the food supply.”[13] Antibiotic resistant bacteria is becoming a major health crisis and clearly is linked to factory farms by compelling scientific documentation.

With respect to factory farms being necessary to feed the world, a 2016 independent study by an International Panel of Experts in Sustainability described the evidence found in 350 studies documenting the failures of industrial agriculture and supporting fundamental change as “overwhelming."[14] The study 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.”[15]

The report provides extensive documentation of a new sustainable food system emerging in the U.S. and around the world. They state: “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 agro-ecosystems 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.”

The challenge of the future for farmers in the U.S. is not to increase agricultural productivity but instead agricultural sustainability. Our current food system isn’t meeting the needs of all in the present and it certainly is not leaving equal or better opportunities for the future. American farmers produce far more than enough to provide adequate food for everyone. We simply need to focus on producing food rather than feed and fuel, reducing food waste, and making sure everyone has enough food, regardless of his or her ability to earn enough money. The rest of the world doesn’t need or want our agricultural commodities; the world is perfectly capable of feeding itself without factory farms or industrial agriculture. The only real question remaining is whether the economic rights of corporations and factory farmers to make money will continue to take priority over the basic human rights of all people to a clean air, clean water, safe food, and the peaceful enjoyment of their homes.

In an attempt to stem the tide of growing public concern, the industrial “agricultural establishment,”[16] has mounted a multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign designed to – in their words – “increase confidence and trust in today’s agriculture.”[17] Food Dialogues is one initiative of the broader campaign that is sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. The organization’s board members include the American Farm Bureau Federation, John Deere, and the major agricultural commodity organizations. Board members Monsanto and DuPont have each pledged $500,000 per year to the campaign. A recent study by Friends of the Earth documents that various “front groups” have been spending more than $25 million per year to defend industrial agriculture.[18] The campaigns have hired some of the nation’s top public relations firms to try to polish the tarnished public image of industrial agriculture.

The agricultural establishment seems to understand that their national PR campaign is little more than a “holding action” against growing public concerns. The agricultural establishment knows that factory farms would not be economically viable if they were effectively regulated. So they are using their political power to establish legislative protections that would prevent effective regulation of factory farms and industrial agriculture in general. Their legislative agenda includes a wide variety of generic legislation to protect factory farming.

For example, during the 1990s, 13 states passed “food disparagement laws” – commonly called “veggie libel laws.”[19] These laws make it easier for food producers to sue anyone for libel who criticizes the safety or healthfulness of specific foods or systems of production. Even if cases don’t hold up in court, as with the Oprah Winfrey case, they cast a chilling effect on potential food critics – including scientists and others who might affect the credibility of the food industry. “Ag-gag”[20] laws are another example of generic legislation. At least six states have enacted various laws that forbid the undercover filming or photography of any activity on farms without the consent of their owner. These laws are targeted specifically to whistle-blowers who have documented animal cruelty in factory farming operations.

Stronger “right to farm laws” is the most important current legislative initiative. All 50 states already have some form of right to farm law. The early laws, beginning in the 1980s, were enacted to minimize the threat of nuisance litigation and prohibitive state and local government regulation of “normal farming practices.”[21] However, more recent laws go far beyond those initial laws by prohibiting the legal restraint or effective regulation of any farming practices that the agriculture establishment might choose to define as “normal farming practices” – which obviously includes factory farming. Some states have written the right to farm laws into their state constitutions and other states are actively considering similar constitutional amendments. I think the ultimate strategy is to make the right to farm a constitutional economic right that will take priority over other basic human rights that are promised by the U.S. Constitution.

CAFO operators seem to assume they have the right to operate a CAFO as long as they don’t create a legal nuisance. Admittedly, the U.S. constitution doesn’t mention the right to a clean and healthy environment. However, the rights of the people of the United States are not limited to rights specifically named or enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, Amendment 9 of the Constitution states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” It clearly states that “other” rights, in addition to those named, are to be “retained by the people.” Some of those “other” rights were later added to the Constitution, such as the prohibition of slavery and women’s right to vote. Others have been interpreted by the courts to be covered by enumerated constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech and religion and the right to privacy. Some unenumerated rights are so well-established or self-evident that they have never been seriously questioned. Fundamental rights such as self-determination and self-defense have just been accepted without question.

The American Declaration Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” The rights of self-determination and self-defense were not included in the Constitution because they were “self-evident.” The right of any person to determine for themselves when their health or well-being is being threatened and to take necessary actions to defend themselves against such threats is “self-evident truth.”

What can be more important to the basic right to life than the right to clean air, clean water, and safe food? Reams of research reports from highly credible scientific institutions clearly link factory farms to major public health risks associated with polluted air, polluted water, and contaminated food. Despite the fact the evidence is compelling, defenders of industrial agriculture often argue there is not yet a “scientific consensus.” This is what I call “the tobacco defense.” The tobacco industry argued for decades that there was no “scientific consensus” linking tobacco smoking to public health risks, although their own research indicated otherwise.

A basic difference between the tobacco controversy of 30 years ago and the CAFO controversy of today is highly credible scientific information in readily available to anyone. The conclusions drawn by scientists from virtually every significant study regarding the negative impacts of CAFOs are readily available on the internet – including the articles published in refereed journals. The American people are perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions and arriving at a scientific consensus on their own – and the rights of self-determination gives them the constitutional right to do so.

In the case of tobacco, people at least had an opportunity to move away from smokers, although it might have meant giving up commercial air travel and eating in most restaurants. Moving away from a CAFO often means that neighbors must give up their long-time homes or others must forego the opportunity to live in areas outside of a protected municipality. Americans have a basic human right to the opportunity for a decent quality of life, to the pursuit of happiness, without being forced to flee their once-decent neighborhoods.

The only thing that keeps me traveling the country and speaking out about the inevitable negative environmental, social, economic, and public health impacts factory farms is the people I meet whose lives have been literally destroyed by being forced to live downwind or downstream from a factory farm. The stories of real people who have been deprived of their rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness always linger in the back of my mind. The CAFO controversy is not a disagreement about data or the weight to give to conflicting scientific evidence. It ultimately is a matter of people – intelligent, informed, thoughtful, caring, people – being deprived of their basic human rights. I’m originally from Missouri, the Show Me State, and when I see people whose lives are being destroyed by factory farms, I believe it.

These battles over factory farming are battles over conflicting ethical and moral values. The economic rights of factory farmers are being given priority over the basic human rights of their neighbors and society in general. Some are still searching for middle ground upon which to develop and implement a mutually acceptable set of regulations. However, the agricultural establishment is firmly committed to preventing effective regulation of factory farming. There is no middle ground. To compromise is to lose. It’s time to choose sides. As for me, I stand firmly on the side of the people – the rights of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: to clean air, clean water, safe food, and our right to decide for ourselves when we have good reason to feel our rights are threatened.

It’s time for us to stand up for our basic human rights before others allow our rights to be taken away. We have a basic human right of self-defense as well as self-determination. At times, self-defense requires that we take offense in defending our constitutional rights. We need to continue opposing “bad laws” and defending private property rights in court, but we can’t allow our time and energy to be totally depleted by legislative battles and legal actions that promise no long run solutions. The scientific evidence against factory farming is already “overwhelming”.

We need to act boldly by advocating a nation-wide moratorium on CAFOs, to give people time to inform themselves on the nature of the threats and of their rights of self-defense. We need to propose a national “right to farm” law that will preempt all current state right to farm laws, and specifically exclude CAFOs and other industrial agricultural systems from the legal definition of “farm.” We need to propose a CAFO tax to create a “superfund” and then start closing down and cleaning up after CAFOs wherever they threaten the rights of their neighbors. We need to replace current government policies that support factory farms and industrial agriculture with a farm bill that supports independent family farms and sustainable animal agriculture. Farm policy, not free markets, created today’s industrial agriculture and new farm policies can create a new sustainable agriculture. We need to let people know we don’t need factory farms to feed the world. We need to put the agricultural establishment on the defensive with a comprehensive plan of action built upon a strong foundation of widely-held moral and ethical values.

The Declaration of Independence clearly states that governments are established for the purpose of securing the God given rights of people. The 10th Amendment of the U.S Constitution states: “The Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Our federal and state governments have failed to use their power, or perhaps don’t have the power, to protect our constitutional rights in the case of factory farming. In either case, “we the people,” must find a means of using the power granted to us by our constitution to claim our constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is no middle ground. It’s time to take a stand. As for me, for as long as I am able to stand, I will stand against factory farms – on the side of the people.


[1] Prepared for presentation at the Factory Farm Summit, Green Bay, WI, September 10-11, 2016.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO – USA; Author of, Sustainable Capitalism-a Matter of Common Sense, Essentials of Economic Sustainability, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, Crisis and Opportunity-Sustainability in American Agriculture, and A Revolution of the Middle-the Pursuit of Happiness, all books available on Amazon.com: Books and Kindle E-books.

Email: JEIkerd@gmail.com; Website: http://faculty.missouri.edu/ikerdj/ or http://www.johnikerd.com .

[3] Chicago Tribune, “Price of Pork – Special Report,” http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/pork/

[4] The Huffington Post, “Factory Farming,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/factory-farming/ .

[5] New York Times, “Factory Farming,” http://www.nytimes.com/topic/subject/factory-farming .

[6] Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production: “Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America,” 2008, http://www.pewtrusts.org/news_room_detail.aspx?id=38438 , full report, http://www.ncifap.org/ .

[7] Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, “Industrial Food Production in America; Examining the impacts of the Pew Commissions primary recommendations.” http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/_pdf/research/clf_reports/CLF-PEW-for%20Web.pdf.

[8] Pew Commission Report on Industrial Animal Agriculture, “Impact of Industrial Farm Animal Production on Rural Communities,” 2008?, http://www.ncifap.org/_images/212-8_pcifap_ruralcom_finaltc.pdf .

[9] Curtis Stofferahn, “Industrialized Farming and Its Relationship to Community Well-Being: an Update of the 2000 Report by Linda Labao,” special report prepared for the North Dakota, Office of Attorney General, http://www.und.edu/org/ndrural/Lobao%20&%20Stofferahn.pdf .

[10] U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Recalls, Market Withdrawals, and Safety Alerts, http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ .

[11] Cuiwei Zhao, and others, Prevalence of Campylobacter spp., Escherichia coli, and Salmonella Serovars in Retail Chicken, Turkey, Pork, and Beef from the Greater Washington, D.C., Area, Applied Environmental Microbiology, December 2001 vol. 67 no. 12. http://aem.asm.org/content/67/12/5431.short .

[12] Andrew E. Waters and others, Multidrug-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus in US Meat and Poultry, Clinical Infectious Diseases, (2011) 52 (10):1227-1230, published online: April 15, 2011, http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/52/10/1227.full .

[13] US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013 Executive Summary, http://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/threat-report-2013/pdf/ar-threats-2013-508.pdf#page=6 .

[14] Andrea Germanos, “'Overwhelming' Evidence Shows Path is Clear: It's Time to Ditch Industrial Agriculture for Good” Common Dreams, Thursday, June 02, 2016, http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/06/02/overwhelming-evidence-shows-path-clear-its-time-ditch-industrial-agriculture-good?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=socialnetwork

[15] IPES – Food, International Panel of Experts on Sustainability, From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, June 2016, http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/UniformityToDiversity_FullReport.pdf

[16] Agribusiness corporations, major commodity groups, American Farm Bureau Federation, USDA, and most State Departments of Agriculture, and agricultural colleges.

[17] Food Dialogues, “About USFRA,” http://www.fooddialogues.com .

[18] Kari Hamerschlag and Anna Lappé, “Spinning Food,” Friends of the Earth, http://www.foe.org/projects/food-and-technology/good-food-healthy-planet/spinning-food#sthash.8Xhj3lqt.dpuf .

[19] Wikipedia, “Food Libel Laws,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_libel_laws#Notable_cases .

[20] Wikipedia. “Ag-Gag,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ag-gag .

[21] Wikipedia, “Right to Farm Law,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-to-farm_laws .