The Growing Movement to Stop CAFOs

Millions of people in rural US communities experience pervasive threats from industrial animal farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Harms include the visceral daily reality of serious illnesses, including cancer and respiratory disease, and contamination of land, air, and water by the concentrated waste of farmed animals. Foul odors and reduced quality of life near CAFOs can make homes unlivable, businesses unprofitable, and life intolerably stressful. Some effects travel far beyond neighboring communities. CAFOs and their feed crops increase air pollution hundreds of miles away and pollute downstream waterways, while greenhouse gas emissions from animal waste are a major contributor to global climate change.

Across the country, many consumers, communities, and civil society advocates are questioning whether CAFOs have a future in US farming. How can the US food system secure a future free of CAFOs?

Despite myriad harms, citizens, environmental and social justice organizations, and their allies have traditionally faced an uphill battle when they attempt to challenge the negative impacts of CAFOs in court. Since 1992, every US state has had a Right to Farm law, designed to protect farms from nuisance lawsuits—lawsuits brought by neighbors against the lifestyle nuisances created by farming operations. These laws were originally written to protect small family farms, but today they are being mobilized to defend corporate industrial animal farming.

Now, a new factor is entering the mix: grassroots momentum has begun building to ban or place a moratorium on the development of new CAFOs and to increase regulation and enforcement of existing laws governing industrial agriculture. This young movement is already national in scale and broad in scope, encompassing impacted citizens, advocacy groups, public health authorities, academic researchers, and a handful of state and federal legislators. Although still small, this movement is beginning to change public opinion. Some activists express hope that agribusiness’ powerful political influence may finally give way to healthier, more sustainable models of food production.

THE DOMINANCE OF CAFOS

The EPA defines large CAFOs as animal-confinement operations that house at least 1,000 beef cattle, 700 dairy cattle, 2,500 hogs, 125,000 broiler hens, or 82,000 laying hens. However, in practice CAFOs are typically much larger. For example, the average inventory of an egg-laying CAFO in Iowa is 1,866,227 hens. In the US overall, the average egg-laying CAFO houses nearly 800,000 hens.[1]

In 2020 the US had 21,465 documented CAFOs, although significant gaps in EPA oversight mean the true number may be higher. Growth of CAFOs is quickening: USDA’s latest five-year agricultural census found a 14% increase in the number of animals living on factory farms between 2012 and 2017—190 million more animals—even as the number of operations shrank.[2] For example, while Iowa had one-fourth fewer egg-laying operations in 2017 than in 2012, the average size of these operations grew by nearly 50% as many more of them became CAFOs.[3]

THE TRUE COSTS OF CAFOS

In 2019 the American Public Health Association (APHA) recommended banning CAFOs, saying the current system “has externalized the costs of environmental degradation and adverse health impacts, keeping retail meat prices artificially low while shifting health and environmental costs onto communities and individual Americans.”[4] These externalized costs, obscured by the low retail prices of CAFO-sourced products, actually cost US taxpayers billions of dollars annually.

The arrival of a CAFO in a rural neighborhood negatively impacts animals, the environment, local economies, farmers and workers, and hundreds or thousands of nearby residents.

Animal mistreatment is built into the CAFO model, which relies on animal exploitation. On a typical CAFO, thousands of animals are confined in cramped and crowded indoor conditions that inflict great pain and suffering and do not allow animals to pursue natural behaviors.

The environmental damage of a CAFO’s entrance can mean sudden, drastic shifts in health and wellbeing for neighboring communities.

  • Air pollution from CAFOs is now linked to more deaths than pollution from coal-fired power plants. A landmark 2020 study found that the US has 15,900 air-quality-related deaths annually due to agricultural production, and that 80% of these deaths (12,700) are attributable to animal-based foods, both directly from animal production and indirectly from growing animal feed. Nearly half (8,400) of the total deaths occur in 308 counties, located chiefly in California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the Upper Midwest Corn Belt. These deaths cost the US $159 billion per year.[5]
  • Water pollution is equally serious. CAFO-generated manure that seeps into groundwater may contain antibiotics, pathogens, bacteria, hormones, nitrogen, and phosphorus.[6] In 2019, Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources found that more than half of the state’s natural water sources failed water quality tests due to agricultural contamination. Ultimately, CAFOs could put water supplies at risk for the approximately 11% of US residents—34 million in 2020—who rely on private wells.[7]
  • Toxic fumes (for instance, from the ammonia, hydrogen sulfate, and particulate matter emissions from hog farms) can cause headaches, lung impairment, cardiovascular illnesses, high blood pressure, and premature death.[8] Studies have also linked CAFO odors to stress, depression, and fatigue.
  • Natural gas infrastructure encroaches on residential areas when dairy and meat CAFOs install methane digesters to produce factory farm gas. Rural residential areas become industrial zones, riddled with pipelines, new roads, and heavy vehicles.

The harms of CAFOs often fall most heavily on low-income and BIPOC[i] communities. In several states, CAFOs are disproportionally located in low-income and/or minority communities. All of Missouri’s CAFO-densest counties in 2019 had poverty rates above the state average. In North Carolina, a 2014 study found that BIPOC residents are 1.5 times more likely than white residents to live near an industrial hog operation. The health risks of CAFOs are magnified for CAFO workers, who are increasingly likely to be immigrants. In 2018, USDA reported that 64% of farm laborers, graders, and sorters were of Hispanic origin and 55% were born outside the US. Immigrant farmworkers have few alternative options for employment and are less likely to be informed of the many occupational risks of CAFO jobs.

The increasing dominance of CAFOs in rural farming economies is narrowing options for farmers, presenting more and more small and mid-sized farmers with the choice between going out of business, or taking on the heavy debt and restrictive conditions of contracting with agribusiness.[9] Those that choose to operate a CAFO often face huge barriers to economic success. While farmers own the land and equipment on a CAFO, corporate entities called integrators own the animals, control all stages of production, and set market prices. Farmers typically find themselves with far lower profits than they were led to expect and little or no market power or operational autonomy, even as they bear heavy capital debt.

Local economies can be seriously skewed when a CAFO arrives. A 2018 economic analysis of rural Iowa found that as CAFOs spread, net farm incomes dropped 46% while incomes in nearby towns and cities dropped 40%. Property values near a new CAFO can fall as much as 88%.

The routine use of antibiotics in CAFO livestock has led to a global rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans, animals, food, and the environment.[10] The annual economic cost of antibiotic resistance is estimated at $55 billion in healthcare expenses and lost productivity.[11]

Why Do CAFOs POLLute so much?

CAFOs generate vast quantities of animal waste, due to the large numbers of animals they raise in extreme confinement. According to Food & Water Watch, CAFOs in the US generate about 369 million tons of animal manure per year—13 times the amount of sewage produced by the US population.[12]

To dispose of this waste, poultry CAFOs use huge fans to blow manure-infused air out of barns onto the surrounding countryside. Cattle and hog CAFOs store waste in large manure lagoons until it dissolves into a slurry, then aerosolize it over surrounding farm fields as fertilizer. In both cases, the manure gets carried by wind and groundwater into residential and municipal areas. Eventually, it runs downstream and into the Gulf of Mexico, where it contributes to dead zones. CAFOs also significantly contaminate both soil and groundwater directly under their feedlots.[13]

BUILDING MOMENTUM AGAINST CAFOS

In the last several years, efforts to challenge the dominance and harms of CAFOs have begun to grow into a national movement to win local redress for citizens and systemic reform from policymakers. Efforts are taking place at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as internationally.

The movement has a broad coalition of supporters—including impacted citizens and communities; public health authorities; legislators; and activists from the environmental justice, environmental protection, workers’ rights, animal rights, and agricultural transformation movements.

At the local level

Neighbors across the US are organizing to hold nearby CAFOs accountable. While this trend is not new, the scale of organizing is growing, along with collaborations between citizens, advocacy groups, and legal allies.

Sussex County, Delaware, has at least thirteen citizen groups confronting water-contamination issues from the state’s more than 1,000 CAFOs. One of these, the Sussex Health & Environmental Network (SHEN), began working with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP), a national NGO that provides free media training and advocacy to communities impacted by factory farms. This partnership helped catalyze the Clean Water for Delaware Act, a 2021 law with $50 million in annual funding for clean water projects, including grants to low-income households whose wells are contaminated by agricultural pollutants.

These collaborative success stories are becoming a groundswell. In North Carolina, a coalition of nearly 500 citizens won a series of dramatic legal victories in 2018 against Murphy-Brown, a hog integrator owned by Smithfield Pork, with the aid of allies including The Public Justice Food Project (a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that focuses specifically on providing “impact litigation” for agricultural transformation).

At the state level

Statewide CAFO-moratorium campaigns—led by citizen groups, with active participation by supportive legislators—are underway in Maryland, Iowa, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Moratoria or partial bans already exist in South Dakota, Arkansas, and North Carolina. As of 2021, fourteen states (nine in the last five years alone) have banned extreme forms of confinement for laying hens, sows, and calves.

Movement groups are also directly challenging state laws. In 2019, two grassroots groups involved in the 2018 wins in North Carolina—NC Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) and Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH)—along with Waterkeepers Alliance and Winyah Rivers Alliance, filed a constitutional challenge against two new state laws designed to protect North Carolina’s pork industry from future citizen suits. Unfortunately, the challenge was dismissed by North Carolina’s Superior Court.

At the federal level

Both at the grassroots level and on Capitol Hill, calls for federal action on agricultural reform are starting to grow. In 2020, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) introduced the Farm System Reform Act, a bill that would phase out CAFOs by 2040 and set aside $100 billion to help industrial animal farmers voluntarily transition their land to more sustainable uses. More than 300 organizations signed a petition calling on Congress to pass the bill. While its future remains in limbo, the strong grassroots support suggests that future national-scale action against CAFOs may be just around the corner.

Meanwhile, challenges are growing against the EPA’s lenient attitude toward agribusiness. Since 2005, the EPA has exempted animal feeding operations from critical air-pollution control and disclosure laws: the Clean Air Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). These exemptions have enabled a “data void” that prevents even basic oversight of CAFO operations. In 2018 Senator Tom Carper (D-Del) called on the agency to reverse the exemptions, but they still stand. At the grassroots level, in 2021 a coalition of 25 climate, environmental justice, and rural community groups representing over 2.4 million members, led by Public Justice, filed a petition urging the EPA to regulate methane emissions from industrial dairy and hog operations.

HOW CAFOS FIGHT BACK

CAFO operators use numerous creative strategies to minimize their regulation exposure. They may scale their operations to remain just below the EPA’s definition of a “large CAFO.” In public messaging, they argue that their operations are critical for food security and that regulations harm the farmers who feed the United States. They may threaten public officials with legal action when new regulations are being considered. In Delaware, a poultry-group executive even tried to influence an academic researcher who was studying the potential impacts of a proposed chicken-processing plant.

If citizen groups win lawsuits against CAFOs or integrators, the defendants often then petition sympathetic legislators or the EPA to change the regulations in their favor. These petitions are frequently granted, in what one Public Justice lawyer called “agricultural exceptionalism,” undercutting the legal win and reducing the usefulness of future lawsuits.[14]

To protect their dominance, agribusiness firms spend lavishly on federal lobbying: more than $142 million in 2020.[15] This buys the industry enormous political influence. In a striking recent example, the Biden administration’s plan to reduce global methane emissions completely omitted animal agriculture, ignoring the fact that it is the US’s single largest source of methane, responsible for approximately 37% of the nation’s total human-caused methane emissions.

Public Support for CAFOs is Disappearing

Even when suits fail or legal victories are later reversed by policymakers and regulators, CAFO lawsuits are beginning to sway public opinion. A 2019 poll by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—thought to be the first-ever national poll of voters’ attitudes toward CAFOs—found 57% of respondents supporting more oversight of existing CAFOs, 43% favoring a ban on new CAFOs, and more than 80% expressing concern about CAFOs’ health, environmental, and worker-safety impacts. 70% were concerned that these harms disproportionately affect low-income and BIPOC communities, while 78% were disturbed that CAFOs receive taxpayer subsidies.

DISMANTLING CAFO DOMINANCE

Harnessing shifting public opinion and continuing to build grassroots power and awareness is the most effective way to erode the influence of agribusiness. The movement can benefit from additional support by funders, civil society organizations, voters, and policymakers.

Funders can powerfully catalyze the movement by supporting the many effective NGOs and citizen groups working at the local, state, and national levels to challenge CAFOs.

NGOs can amplify their impact by allying with movement-oriented litigators and sympathetic press outlets such as The Young Turks. Movement advocates can also directly challenge state and federal legislation that limits CAFO regulation—such as the Air Consent Agreement, the order that allows EPA to exempt agribusinesses from most of its pollution regulations.

Voters can educate themselves about agriculture’s crucial role in mitigating climate change, restoring the health of rural communities, achieving environmental justice, and simultaneously redressing many other interlinked issues. At the polls, informed voters can support politicians who take on “agricultural transformation” as a key issue.

Meanwhile, policymakers at all levels can consider supporting farm transformation legislation and CAFO moratorium efforts.

HOPE FOR A NEW PARADIGM

Agribusiness’ toxic paradigm holds the nation in its grip. Yet many advocates see real hope today—for the first time in decades, some say[16]—due to the wide-ranging opposition galvanizing citizens, advocates, academics, and public officials. With effective support from funders and the public, this movement could reach a tipping point that ultimately opens the way to a future of healthy, inclusive, sustainable models for US agriculture.


[i] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. We recognize this serious drawback and use the term only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.


[1] Food & Water Watch, “Factory Farm Nation: 2020 Edition,” FoodandWaterWatch.org (April 2020), https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/ib_2004_updfacfarmmaps-web2.pdf.

[2] Food & Water Watch, “Factory Farm Nation: 2020 Edition,” FoodandWaterWatch.org (April 2020), https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/ib_2004_updfacfarmmaps-web2.pdf.

[3] Food & Water Watch, “Factory Farm Nation: 2020 Edition,” FoodandWaterWatch.org (April 2020), https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/ib_2004_updfacfarmmaps-web2.pdf.

[4] American Public Health Association, “Precautionary Moratorium on New and Expanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” Policy No. 20194, November 5, 2019, https://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2020/01/13/precautionary-moratorium-on-new-and-expanding-concentrated-animal-feeding-operations.

[5] Nina G. G. Domingo, Srinidhi Balasubramanian, Sumil K. Thakrar, Michael A. Clark, Peter J. Adams, et al., “Air quality-related health damages of food,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 20 (March 2021), https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2013637118.

[6] Environmental Protection Agency, “Literature Review of Contaminants in Livestock and Poultry Manure and Implications for Water Quality,” National Service for Environmental Publications, US EPA (July 2013), https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPURL.cgi?Dockey=P100H2NI.TXT.

[7] American Public Health Association, “Precautionary Moratorium on New and Expanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” Policy No. 20194 (November 5, 2019), https://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2020/01/13/precautionary-moratorium-on-new-and-expanding-concentrated-animal-feeding-operations.

[8] Joseph Rudek, “Adverse Health Effects of Hog Production: A Literature Review,” Environmental Defense Fund (March 2008), https://www.pcifapia.org/_images/Adverse_Effects_of_hog_ops_.pdf.

[9] Melanie J. Wender, “Goodbye Family Farms and Hello Agribusiness: The Story of How Agricultural Policy Is Destroying the Family Farm and the Environment,” Villanova Environmental Law Journal 22, no. 1 (2011): 29.

[10] J. Rushton, J. Pinto Ferreira, and K. Stärk, “Antimicrobial Resistance: The Use of Antimicrobials in the Livestock Sector,” OECD Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Papers, no. 68, OECD Publishing (October 9, 2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jxvl3dwk3f0-en.

[11] Gabriel K. Innes et al., “External Societal Costs of Antimicrobial Resistance in Humans Attributable to Antimicrobial Use in Livestock,” Annual Review of Public Health, vol. 41:141-157 (April 2020), https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040218-043954.   

[12] Food and Water Watch, “Factory Farm Nation: 2015 Edition,” Organic Consumers Association (June 3, 2015), https://www.organicconsumers.org/scientific/factory-farm-nation-2015-edition.

[13] Barry M. Olson et al., “Soil and Groundwater Quality under a Cattle Feedlot in Southern Alberta,” Water Quality Research Journal 40, no. 2 (2005): 131–144, https://doi.org/10.2166/wqrj.2005.01.

[14] Telephone interview with Public Justice lawyer (October 15, 2021).

[15] “Annual Lobbying on Agribusiness,” Sector Profile: Agribusiness, OpenSecrets (2021), https://www.opensecrets.org/federal-lobbying/sectors/summary?cycle=2019&id=A.

[16] Telephone interview with Maria Payan, Senior Regional Representative, Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, November 9, 2021.

About the author

Stray Dog Institute

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

By Stray Dog Institute

About the Author

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

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