Intensive Livestock Operations in Industrial Agriculture: the True Cost of “Cheap Food” in North America.

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As the world’s population continues to grow at an ever increasing rate, we are forced to find more efficient ways to produce sufficient quantities of food in order to satisfy consumer demand. Although there are several alternatives, the most convenient solution seems to be the development of industrial production agriculture, which results in the farming practices of confined animal feeding. Intensive livestock operations or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are farms in which anywhere from several hundred to several thousand animals are being raised in tremendously condensed spaces for the commercial production of poultry, meat and dairy. The Swiss College of Agriculture defines “industrial systems [as having] livestock densities larger than 10 livestock units per hectare, and they depend primarily on outside supplies of feed, energy, and other inputs, as in confined animal feeding operations”(Menzi. Oenema. Shipin. Gerber. Robinson. Franceshini.). Although CAFOs are currently the most cost-effective and efficient way to produce animal products, there are multiple adverse effects associated with these production practices. Tons of manure, waste, and other by-products generated from intensive livestock operations pollute the air, soil, and water in surrounding areas due to agricultural run-off. CAFOs pose a serious threat to the environment from water and air pollution, which in turn is potentially harmful to the wellbeing of humans. Nevertheless, supporters of modern industrial agricultural production practices claim that the economic benefits of theses farming practices currently outweigh the potential consequences to the environment and society.

Although modern industrial agricultural practices may have a few problems, there are a multitude of advantages that are commonly overlooked when discussing the effects of these production techniques. After all, the development of industrial agriculture was the solution to a problem before it was ever the problem. When demand for cheap food began to grow substantially in the mid twentieth century, farmers began to use production techniques such as intensive livestock operations to supply this increased demand. In addition to increased production quantities, intensive livestock operations have significantly lowered food prices by allowing farms to enjoy lower production costs, greater production efficiency and increased consistency and control over product output due to standardization. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “the benefits of industrial agriculture have been cheap food; a release of labor from agricultural activities for employment in other sectors; large, profitable chemical and agricultural industries; and increased export markets.” It is difficult to ignore the massive economic contributions indirectly related to intensive livestock operations as well. For example, “the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that nontherapeutic animal agricultural use (drugs given to animals even when they are not sick) accounts for 70 percent of total antibiotic consumption in the United States” (Sayre). The excess profits these pharmaceutical companies earn each year as a result of confined animal feeding operations enables new business investments, which in turn creates new jobs. Nevertheless, the system is not perfect and several problems do exist with industrial production agriculture. However, the revenues generated by these industrial production practices account for a significant portion of US GDP and are an integral part of the economy. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “agricultural products make up 10 percent of all exported US merchandise.” It would simply be too detrimental to global and domestic food supplies as well as the economies associated with each to suddenly discontinue the use of industrial farming practices.

Industrial livestock operations are widely scrutinized, and rightly so. Although the monetary production gains...
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