The Environmental Impact of Factory Farming: How Meat Production Harms Our Ecosystems, Economies, and Health

A note from Kelly: With plant-forward eating and sustainability at the foundation of my nutrition messages, I’m often confronted with statements about how eating meat isn’t any worse for the environment than driving a car. I’ve even had my own thoughts challenged at small and large nutrition conferences, by the beef industry, and by my colleagues. Luckily, my brother is an attorney specializing in federal regulatory law and holds a certificate in environmental law. His personal interest in animal agriculture and his work have made him my go-to expert when I need to learn more about sustainable agriculture and aquaculture. That said, I’m incredibly grateful that he was willing to use his passion to educate us all on the true environmental impact of factory farming in America and around the world.

The Rise of Factory Farming

Today, industrial agriculture, also referred to as factory farming, is the dominant food production system in the United States. In the last half century, without Americans noticing, small family farms that were once the bedrock of American society have been pushed aside by massive agribusiness corporations that intensively confine and slaughter tens of billions of pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys and other animals each year for meat, eggs, and milk. Factory farming is all about maximizing profits for a few of the world’s largest corporations at the expense of animal welfare, the factory farm workers, and the environment. 

The handful of corporations that now control the marketplace may sound familiar: Tyson, Perdue, Cargill, and ADM. The stranglehold these few companies are exerting on our food system has become even more excessive in the last few decades, as we have seen a staggering increase in the intensive confinement of animals and replacement of small family operations. To illustrate this monopolization, over a 20 year period, Iowans saw an 84% decrease in the state’s total number of farms that raise pigs while the average number of pigs per farm exploded from 252 to 1,428. Residents of these corporate farm communities recall seeing “100 hog operations within a four-mile radius.”

The surge in factory farming has been driven by these corporations’ enormous political influence and weak environmental regulations. Today, poultry and pig production is almost entirely contract-based, in which once independent farmers have resorted to contractual arrangements with large corporations. These corporations supply the farmers with animals and feed, while the growers are likely to own the land and construct buildings that resemble enormous metal sheds in a manner that must be approved by the companies. With their land in jeopardy, little income, and very little negotiating power, they are acquiescent to company control, with the corporations retaining the right to terminate all contracts at will and enter the premises to take control of operations. This is vastly different from the farming that was the basis of American culture prior to the 1950s, when cows grazed on pastureland and chickens and hogs roamed over fields.

the environmental impact of factory farming

Societal Costs of Meat Production

While the cheap meat byproduct of these “factories”, via supermarket prices of $3.80 for 2 pounds of chicken breast, $5.00 for 2 pounds of ground beef, or fast food prices like those on McDonald’s Dollar Menu, may seem like a bargain, in reality we are all being taken for a ride. Retail prices of factory farmed meat, dairy, and egg products do not account for the fact that the American taxpayer and our economy are left to bear the steep financial, health, and environmental impacts of factory farming created by a handful of corporations who do not absorb any of these expenses, known as externalities

The total annual cost borne by society as a consequence of this industry is in the tens of billions of dollars.

An “externality” is a cost that society incurs due to a lack of regulation. These are costs that are created by the operation of a business itself, but that the business does not pay for; they are external to the production and market for the goods themselves. Rather, they are passed off to the rest of the society in taxes, health impairments, environmental degradation, and harms to other industries. The total annual cost borne by society as a consequence of this industry is in the tens of billions of dollars.  

Under the current system, these corporate farms are operating as free riders, in that they do not pay or account for problems and financial costs they are creating, expecting society to deal with it. This is a common problem when it comes to pollution and environmental damages caused by billion dollar industries. The way to require these corporate enterprises to account for their actions is in the form of regulations, which force the companies to follow rules and operate in a way that does not generate these problems in the first place. 

As one of the main polluters on earth, the externalities of the factory farming sector that you and I are footing the bill for include: 

  • immense pollution of surrounding communities
  • destruction of local economies and other business sectors
  • “dead zones” in our nation’s rivers, streams, and coastal systems
  • air and climate pollution
  • declining property values
  • global water shortages
  • the eradication of biodiversity (which impacts food availability and cost)
  • medical expenses for some in surrounding communities

These real impacts on you, your loved ones, and self-conscious animals are occurring as these factories rake in billions of dollars in profit while receiving billions of tax dollars in subsidies. 

As explained, these “externalities” are the result of these factories operating virtually unregulated, which has led to the dumping of hundreds of millions of tons of untreated sewage onto surrounding land, ultimately making its way into waterways and surrounding communities. According to the USDA and the EPA, animal feeding operations produce approximately 500 million tons of manure every year, with the largest facilities generating 60% of that waste. It is estimated that confined animals generate 3 times more waste than humans in the United States, however unlike human sewage, this waste is never treated and merely disposed of on land. As a case in point, well-known Tyson Foods slaughters more than 35 million chickens and 125,000 cows each week, which has resulted in this corporate giant alone dumping 104 million tons of pollutants into waterways over the past decade. 

We must ask ourselves why does an industry controlled by a handful of companies, that collect billions of dollars in profit, and receive billions of dollars in taxpayer money also go unregulated, only to pass huge financial and health costs onto American taxpayers? Because today those who have the capacity to pump millions of dollars into the political sphere to elect officials are prioritized over those who do not. This industry is a microcosm of many powerful industries in America that run on short term profits at the expense of long-term economic and environmental sustainability. 

If every animal-based food item was replaced with plant-based alternatives, enough food would be added to feed 350 million additional people.

The way that these companies are operating is leading to a crisis that will cost Americans, and the planet, exponentially more as costs build over time. Some people wonder if factory farming is necessary to feed the world. In reality, the reverse is true. Feeding huge numbers of confined animals actually uses more food – in the form of grains and other plants that could be used to feed humans directly. This is represented in the fact that if every animal-based food item was replaced with plant-based alternatives, enough food would be added to feed 350 million additional people

It is painfully clear that this system is an unethical and uneconomical way to produce the food we need. In contrast, sustainably grown foods cost a bit more upfront but their beneficial impacts on society and the environment are built in to their price, saving us from these additional costs in the long run. 

How Factory Farming Creates Pollution

gulf of mexico dead zone

Water Pollution & Dead Zones: The Impacts of Animal Waste

Single large factory farms raising 55,000 cattle are known to generate more waste than the city of Portland, Oregon.

Waste from animal agriculture is disposed of on land in the hopes that the environment will absorb and filter it. On independent family farms, the number of animals are balanced with the land’s ability to absorb waste and its nutrients. In those situations, the animal waste serves as a fertilizer for crops as applied in an amount and rate that the soil is able to absorb. 

However, at the massive scale that factory farms are run, without any connection to the land, the hundreds of millions of tons of waste produced and subsequently spread on land cannot be absorbed and filtered by the environment. As a direct case in point, in the 1990s a factory farm operation by the name of Seaboard Farms moved into rural communities in Oklahoma with over $60 million in subsidies and tax breaks. Seaboard set up hundreds of massive sheds, each confining nearly 1,000 hogs and collectively producing as much sewage as the city of Philadelphia. A striking fact is that single large factory farms raising 55,000 cattle are known to generate more waste than the city of Portland, Oregon. 

Prior to this toxic waste being disposed of on land, it typically spends time in storage systems. These systems are essentially lakes as large as 14 acres by 25 feet deep, holding as much as 20-45 million gallons of waste. While the waste sits it emits pollutants and greenhouse gases, such as methane, into the air contributing to climate change. The holding systems also leak and spill into water bodies in amounts that have the potential to be staggering. 

A number of manure lagoons have experienced catastrophic failures, sending tens of millions of gallons of raw manure into streams, rivers, and estuaries, killing millions of fish. While there are states that average 20 spills annually, New York and Minnesota have had single incidents killing 375,000 and 700,000 fish, respectively. One of the largest spills reported occurred in 1995, when a 120,000-square-foot lagoon ruptured on a North Carolina factory farm, releasing 25.8 million gallons of sewage into a nearby river, killing 10 million fish and causing both short and long term health effects to residents of the area. 

manure lagoons

Even if these holding lagoons do not leak or spill, the waste is eventually sprayed in massive amounts onto fields that are unable to absorb the untreated waste. This overload of manure and nutrients causes contaminants to run off the land during irrigation and rain events, washing into our streams, rivers, and groundwater. For instance, poultry operations in Maryland’s Easter Shore spread three times more manure and nutrients on land than the soil and crops can use. At this point, the waste becomes an externality and eventually makes its way downstream into lakes, estuaries, coastal waters, and eventually the ocean. These all too common events result in severe damage to water systems across the country, especially bodies like the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. Each year, millions of tons of nitrogen and phosphorus from manure and fertilizers wash down our streams and rivers and into our coastal systems.

In these coastal waters, massive “dead zones” begin to form. There, nitrogen and phosphorus fertilize the rapid growth of cyanobacteria, algae, phytoplankton, and seaweeds. After this explosion of algal growth on the water’s surface propagated by these excess nutrients, the algae die and sink to the bottom of the water column providing an abundant food source for bacteria and other microorganisms. However, with so many aquatic microorganisms consuming, reproducing and respiring at once, they literally use up most, if not all, of the oxygen in the water. 

Few aquatic organisms can survive in these oxygen deprived, “hypoxic,” waters. The species that rely on oxygen in the water to breathe and cannot get to oxygenated waters fast enough, die off, hence the name “dead zone.” Those individuals that do not directly die from suffocation, face stressful conditions which can lead to entire populations of fish, crabs, and shrimp succumbing to disease. Even species such as marine mammals and sea birds that receive their oxygen from the air, rather than water, face starvation, sickness, and death due to a severe loss in the food sources they rely on. These large swaths of lakes, coastal waters, and ocean become aquatic deserts, devoid of life

The number and size of dead zones has increased dramatically in the past 50 years becoming more widespread as our agriculture has become more unsustainable and larger factories have confined even greater numbers of animals. Since the 1960s, the number of dead zones have doubled each decade, with more than 400 occurring today. While everyone in the eastern United States lives close to a dead zone of some size, Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake Bay to name a few, the most recognized dead zone in the U.S. is a swath in the Gulf of Mexico that is approximately the size of the state of New Jersey. This dead zone appears annually, not far from the mouth of the Mississippi River, a water source that drains agricultural operations up and down the United States. This is an area that is still feeling the effects from the 2011 BP Oil spill, a disaster that was also caused by a lack of proper regulation and government oversight. 

Other Environmental Impacts of Factory Farming: Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Deforestation

Factory farming is responsible for 91% of the deforestation that occurs in the Amazon.

The environmental impact of factory farming extends beyond water pollution. In addition to the creation of dead zones, there are a myriad of other environmental problems society faces because of the extreme confinement of billions of animals. For instance, factory farming is responsible for an immense amount of the greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation that fuel climate change. Collectively, cattle emit 150 billion gallons of methane daily into our atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It takes more than 11 times as much fossil fuel energy to make one calorie of animal protein as it does to make one calorie of plant protein, ranging from 4 times for chicken production to 40 times for beef.

Further, the amount of land used just to feed and fatten these animals for their meat constitutes 1/3 of global arable land on the planet and requires extreme deforestation practices. In fact, factory farming is responsible for 91% of the deforestation that occurs in the Amazon. 

Economic Effects of Factory Farming

Economic Effects of Dead Zones on Fisheries and Tourism

The creation of “dead zones” has far-reaching implications, some of which include significant harm to other industries and job creators.

The devastating environmental impact of factory farming also has ripple effects on the economy. The creation of “dead zones” has far-reaching implications, some of which include significant harm to other industries and job creators. For example, as a consequence of lost biodiversity and ecosystem services, the tourism industry alone loses close to $1 billion a year as a result of nutrient over-enrichment. To use the Gulf of Mexico as an example, the Gulf now faces serious economic effects from its growing dead zone, especially due to its reliance on the seafood and tourism sectors, which generate 600,000 jobs and $9 billion in wages for the region each year. 

factory farming dead zone

With respect to the seafood industry, the Gulf’s fishermen have seen severe impacts to their livelihood, which is particularly problematic as the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf has accounted for 40% of our nation’s seafood. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the Gulf’s dead zone has cost up to $2.4 billion in damages to fish stocks and habitat every year for over 30 years. 

In another respect, the impacts to fisheries and tourism lead to higher costs for consumers and markets as the prices for products that are more difficult to provide have continued to increase. The Gulf is just one example of the catastrophic effects that unregulated factory farming plays on our economy. Costs that are in addition to the innate and aesthetic value of having bio-diverse ecosystems in our rivers, lakes, and coasts.

The Impacts of Factory Farming on Property Values

Property values can diminish in the range of 50% to nearly 90% due to proximity to factory farms, resulting in catastrophic effects on counties

The economic impacts of factory farming extends beyond the proliferation of dead zones, as the factories themselves have severe consequences for local economies. Based on the harms factory farms inflict on water, air, and public health in their vicinity, it is not surprising that they also impact local property values due to the unpleasant sight and odor of farms. Neighbors complain of intolerable stench with constant worry of pollution to drinking water sources.

Property values can diminish in the range of 50% to nearly 90% due to proximity to factory farms, resulting in catastrophic effects on counties. Another study determined that each factory farm in Missouri has lowered property values in its surrounding community by an average of $2.68 million. If you consider the fact that there are an estimated 20,000 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the U.S., property losses may total over $50 billion. Often, the longtime residents of these communities have their voices drowned out by the industry’s cash and lobbying.

The Taxpayer Costs of Industrial Agriculture

From 1995-2013, taxpayers provided $292.5 billion in direct agricultural subsidies and $96 billion in crop insurance subsidies.

Direct costs to Americans, as taxpayers, for the operation and pollution of factory farms comes in the form of subsidies to these corporations, cleanup costs to water supplies and ecosystems, as well as new infrastructure for lost ecosystem services. The federal government spends more than $20 billion a year on subsidies for farm businesses. From 1995-2013, taxpayers provided $292.5 billion in direct agricultural subsidies, $96 billion in crop insurance subsidies, and over $100 billion in subsidies to grow genetically engineered crops, many of which are used to feed the animals slaughtered for meat. While huge operations reel in these taxpayer payments, the smallest 80 percent of farms within that time-frame received on average a total $604 in annual subsidies. In 2012 alone, $15.8 billion in taxpayer dollars went to farms in providing crop insurance with an outsized majority going to the largest factory farms. This amount is expected to climb to $90 billion over the next 10 years. 

Furthermore, the USDA uses tax dollars to promote factory farming by providing and guaranteeing loans used by these giant facilities. Between 2009 and 2015, the Farm Service Agency approved almost $50 million in direct or guaranteed loans for chicken operations in Maryland alone

Finally, clean-up costs from pollution run-off caused by the agricultural sector as a whole are astronomical – with an annual price tag of nearly $2 billion. The National Research Council has estimated the total economic costs of agricultural runoff lie anywhere between $2-16 billion annually. One researcher has calculated the total cost of just cleaning the soil under U.S. hog and dairy farms at $4.1 billion. In comparison, Kansas taxpayers have paid $56 million to remediate leaching at dairy and hog farms. 

Public Health Impacts of Factory Farming

Health Impacts of Processed Meats

There are also profound health risks and costs to farmers, workers, consumers, and the public as a whole, brought about by industrial animal production. From a consumption standpoint, regular intake of cured and processed meat has been linked to potential carcinogenic effects in humans, along with an association with an increased risk of other health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Annual costs for these diseases in the United States amount to more than $33 billion

Health Hazards Faced By Workers

The pollutants emitted by meat factories contribute not only to the overall environmental impact of factory farming but also to negative health outcomes in their workers. With respect to the toxicity of the factories themselves, factory farm employees suffer from the ammonia emissions associated with the factories. These workers are mostly low-income minorities who are unaware of the health hazards they will encounter on the job. Numerous studies have found respiratory problems among workers, with as many as 30% experiencing asthma, bronchitis, and lung disease. Children attending nearby schools also have elevated rates of these chronic respiratory issues. 

Water Contamination Caused By Factory Farms

Manure from factory farms contains more than 150 pathogens that leach into swimming areas and drinking sources, six of which account for 90% of all human foodborne and waterborne diseases.

Along with the problems associated with phosphorus and nitrogen, manure from factory farms contains more than 150 pathogens that leach into swimming areas and drinking sources, six of which account for 90% of all human foodborne and waterborne diseases. The EPA estimates that about 53% of people in the U.S. rely on groundwater resources for drinking water. 

In Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, which has seen a significant increase in new factory farms over the past two decades, a 2017 study found fecal microbes in 60% of sampled drinking wells. In a petition by Kewaunee county residents opposing the removal of certain clean water protections from a local “factory’s” permit, the presiding Administrative Law Judge noted “the proliferation of contaminated wells represents a massive regulatory failure to protect groundwater” by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

In addition to bacteria, a 2015 report found water systems serving seven million Americans in 48 states contained high levels of nitrates, which are linked to certain types of cancer. Viney Aneja, a professor in the Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University, has found that ammonia, one of the main sources of nitrogen pollution, can end up in waterways as far as 50 miles away, and transported in airborne form hundreds of miles away. In 2003, an egg facility in Ohio reported emissions of 1.6 million pounds of ammonia, 44 times the health-related reporting threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These health issues come with a host of financial costs. 

Antibiotic Resistance

In addition to threatening public health with water and air pollution, factory farms are hotbeds for the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that affect humans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes antibiotic resistance as one of the greatest public health threats in the world. A staggering 84% of all antibiotics used in the United States are used on animals needed in factory farms to counteract the health challenges rendered by the overcrowded, unsanitary, and stressful living conditions within these facilities. As antibiotics are overused in these industrialized spaces, the bacteria they are intended to kill become resistant to these drugs

When antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread to humans through our food supply or through contaminated waste, they can cause severe or even deadly infections in people. A study in 2015 found antibiotic-resistant bacteria present in approximately 35 to 80 percent of raw meat from supermarkets. Europe has banned the use of many antibiotics in agribusiness, yet the United States has refused to take such action. 

One study has estimated the total annual costs of antibiotic-resistance at $30 billion. Moreover, U.S. annual costs related to deaths, medical care, and lost productivity from E. coli, derived primarily from animal manure, amount to $405 million. Disgracefully, bacterial outbreaks lead to yearly recalls of meat in which animals that were bred to spend their lives unable to move in confined cages for the sole purpose to be killed, are merely thrown in the garbage. 

Animal Abuse in Factory Farming

70 BILLION land animals are abused and killed every year in unimaginably depraved conditions.

Sadly, as industrial animal production facilities have displaced the independent family farmers who once raised most of the nation’s farm animals, we have also lost the connection to and compassion for the animals being raised. Today, 70 BILLION land animals are abused and killed every year in unimaginably depraved conditions

pigs in factory farm

These living, breathing, self-aware animals, capable of feeling extreme suffering, spend their entire lives in very tightly confined spaces, so small they can’t even turn around. Taken from their mothers shortly after birth, they are stuck in cages by the hundreds of thousands, subject to mutilations, with some species thrown into meat grinders alive, all while facing these harms without painkillers. Without common sense protections that would allow these animals to live more humane and natural lives, today’s industry treats them as vehicles to make money, as merely “units of production.” 

Regulatory Issues In Factory Farming

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), found EPA’s regulation of the industry woefully inadequate, determining that the EPA has allowed 60% of AFOs to go unregulated.

The Clean Water Act’s Loopholes

Lax regulations along with an extreme lack of funding to federal and state environmental agencies responsible for enforcing those regulations has led to a vastly unregulated industry that has enabled the environmental impact of factory farming to grow even larger over the years. The few attempts to strengthen regulations have been challenged by industry and their enormous power, leading to very little progress at proper regulation. 

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the source for nearly all regulation of factory farms in the United States, by controlling the amount of pollution entering U.S. waters, including rivers and wetlands. Under the CWA, factory farms are referred to as Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). AFOs are operations where animals are, or will be, confined for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period, and where crops and vegetation are not sustained in the normal growing season over any portion of the lot. AFOs that meet the definition of a CAFO are regulated by the EPA under the CWA. 

To be considered a CAFO, a facility must meet one of three criteria delineated by the EPA in terms of capacity from large, medium, to small depending on species. For instance, CAFOs meet the large criteria if they house 1,000 or more cattle, 10,000 or more swine, or 125,000 or more chickens. To be considered a medium CAFO, a facility contains 300-999 cattle, 3,000-9,999 hogs, or 37,500-124,999 chickens AND also discharge pollutants into U.S. waters “through a man-made ditch, flushing system, or other similar man-made device” OR directly into U.S. waters. Smaller AFOs may be regulated as CAFOs on a case-by-case basis. There are roughly 450,000 AFOs in the United States, of which over 20,000 meet the criteria for CAFOs.

Under the CWA, CAFOs that discharge pollutants into a “water of the United States” are required to apply for a CWA permit and must not discharge more pollutants than stipulated in the permit or run the risk of violation. As with nearly all environmental regulations, the role of the federal government is to set national guidelines and oversee the states’ role in direct enforcement of those guidelines. Due to EPA’s delegation to the states and each state’s ability to implement more strict standards, regulation of these facilities varies from state to state. While CAFO operators are in violation of permits for discharges that exceed the amounts allowable in their permits, it is up to the operator himself whether to apply for permit coverage, or when they do apply whether they feel the need to meet the limits specified. Even when permits are obtained, the requirements are too lax and there is extremely little enforcement regarding the terms. 

On top of this, there are many loopholes. Facilities that have permits and perform certain land practices (nutrient management plans) have the ability to be exempt from any run-off discharges that occur during very heavy rainfalls, a problem compounded as climate change leads to more regular intense storms. Also problematic is the fact that while CWA permits place some restrictions on manure application within the property of the CAFOs themselves, these do not extend to the application of manure that is shipped off-site. In some areas of the country, to escape the CWA, facilities ship up to 85% of their manure offsite where federal rules no longer apply to the application to open fields. Even more, the CWA does not address air pollutants or prohibit the use of manure lagoons susceptible to spills.

societal impacts of factory farming

Worsening Regulation & Enforcement

Given the extreme lack of funding to environmental agencies, regulators rely heavily on CAFOs self-reporting and, in many instances, EPA and state regulators do not even know if a CAFO exists. As such, CAFO operators typically weigh whether their situation poses enough risk of getting caught discharging to warrant applying for a permit. Moreover, in the few instances of inspection and enforcement, CAFO operators are frequently only given warnings, despite extreme unpermitted pollution

In 2017… the EPA inspected only 0.6% of all (factory farming) facilities.

With regulator’s inability to investigate a large portion of operating CAFOs, it is not surprising that many operate without permits. A nonpartisan government agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), found EPA’s regulation of the industry woefully inadequate, determining that the EPA has allowed 60% of AFOs to go unregulated. In 2017, of the 19,496 CAFOs in the country, the EPA conducted 125 inspections and concluded 18 enforcement actions, meaning that the EPA inspected only 0.6 percent of all facilities. This shows that already inadequate enforcement is dropping considerably more after administrative changes in early 2017, with pushes to slash EPA funding further. 

Due to poor funding to environmental agencies, the GAO found that that no federal agency collects the accurate and consistent data on CAFOs that is prerequisite to effective environmental enforcement strategy, concluding that the EPA “cannot fulfill its regulatory duties to protect human health and the environment without accurate and facility-specific information about CAFOs.” EPA has recognized this much itself stating: “EPA does not have facility specific information for all CAFOs in the U.S.” 

Lack of Transparency

In a massive effort to assess just how little regulation this industry faces, in 2010, organizations such as the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) began sending Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the EPA for its records on CAFOs. NRDC found that the EPA had data on 7,500 CAFOs in 40 states. By comparison, at the time, EPA had estimated 17,300 CAFOs nation-wide, meaning more than half of facilities were completely unaccounted for by the entities that are supposed to be limiting their pollution. 

Even more, when it comes to state government data, the amount of information available varied considerably from state to state. For 18 states, NRDC found data on less than 1% of estimated CAFOs. Unfortunately, in response to NRDC and other organizations’ requests to EPA for CAFO information, Agribusiness filed suit to prevent public discovery of the lack of data on their operations, with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (appointed in Feb 2017) appeasing the industry by agreeing to limit future public releases of EPA’s information. This lack of transparency makes it even more difficult to keep the environmental impact of factory farming in check.

The Effects of Lobbying

Lawmakers’ failure to properly fund environmental agencies and ensure proper protection of the public is largely due to the industry’s influence in the political sphere. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production Executive Director, Robert Martin, found “significant influence by agribusiness at every turn: in academic research, policy development, government regulation, and enforcement.” This influence has been obtained by big animal agriculture spending $40 million per year on lobbying and campaign contributions.” 

From 2008-2013 agribusiness, as a whole, spent $751 million lobbying Congress. In direct campaign contributions over the past two decades, agribusiness spent $480.5 million (with two-thirds going to republican candidates). The Trump Administration, more than any other, has been a revolving door for lobbyists to take charge of the government agencies who are tasked with regulating those industries. The administration’s first pick as EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, received $345,246 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry in his previous position as Attorney General of Oklahoma. In that position, he sued the agency he would eventually be picked to lead 13 times in efforts to roll back regulations. Upon Pruitt’s resignation in 2017, the next pick to lead the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, previously served as a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry and is now tasked with ensuring these industries provide safe environments for the public. The Secretary of the Department of Interior, David Bernhardt, previously worked as a lobbyist on behalf of big agribusiness. 

Given this Administration’s ties to corporate America, it is not surprising that the Trump Administration has attempted to revise or eliminate more than 90 environmental rules since entering office. Despite already woefully scarce funding, the the Administration has proposed drastic budget cuts to the Agency each year in office, despite constant pushback. These cuts would eliminate 50 EPA programs and enact immense reduction of more than 50% to science, research, and development. As such, the outlook to gain necessary regulation of the environmental impact of factory farming under the current Administration is bleak. While the Obama EPA had added CAFO regulation and enforcement to its priority list in 2016, factory farms were quickly taken off the priority program in 2017.

Decrease in Federal Protections For Wetlands

Another major rollback of environmental regulations, directly impacting factory farm pollution, concerns specifically which streams, rivers, wetlands, and other water bodies the EPA has jurisdiction over and may prevent pollution into, under the CWA. EPA’s jurisdiction of waters had been uncertain since a 2006 Supreme Court case, by which the court attempted to discern which waters lie the EPA may limit pollution into. In 2015, after a 4-year scientific review, the EPA formulated the “Clean Water Rule”, which was meant to solidify which waters may be regulated by the EPA under the Court’s decision. 

A 41-member EPA Science Advisory Board states the rule “decreases protection for our Nation’s waters and does not support the objective of restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ of these waters.”

However, once entering office, the Trump Administration quickly rescinded that rule and this past February released its revised “Waters of the United States.” This rule dramatically restricts the waters that fall under EPA authority, with the U.S. Geological Survey estimating that the rule removes federal protections for 1 in every 5 streams and 51% of wetlands. A 41-member EPA Science Advisory Board, made up largely of Trump Administration appointees, states the rule “decreases protection for our Nation’s waters and does not support the objective of restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ of these waters.” 

Gutting protections for wetlands is very problematic due to their status as important ecosystems for humans and wildlife. These areas, along rivers and streams, intercept and naturally filter harmful industrial pollution, naturally reduce flood damage, and act as buffers to coastal communities at threat of increasingly harsher storms in the years ahead. With further ability destruct wetlands, taxpayers will be on the hook to fund the replacement of services we currently get for free. This will require installing technology to purify our waters and building structures along our shores as sea levels rise and storms intensify.

By removing federal oversight of these waterways, the EPA’s proposed rule leaves it up to the states to carry the burden of environmental regulations. However, states have unquestionably too few resources to even attempt to deal with these problems. In fact, fewer than half of the states have their own permitting programs to protect wetlands. This deficiency is known by industry leaders and is why they are lobbying the federal government to comply with their demands. 

Increase in Ag-Gag Laws

Finally, in the past decade there has been an increase in ag-gag laws across the country. These pieces of legislation punish investigators uncovering what goes on in factory farm facilities hoping to bring to light the cruelty, abuse, and food safety issues. These laws were pushed for by agribusiness after investigators revealed animals beaten, kicked, mutilated and thrown. Luckily, courts in some states have recently found these laws unconstitutional

The Bottom Line

The public deserves to have more insight into what abuses are suffered by billions of animals in these factories, and the externalities impacting the economy, not less. It goes without saying that improved regulations under the Clean Water Act, along with an investment and drastic increase in the EPA’s funding, is critical to ensuring that industrialized animal agriculture in the U.S. does not continue to devastate public health, our economy, and the welfare of animals.

Reducing The Environmental Impact of Factory Farming: What Can We Do as Individuals?

environmental impact of factory farming

Elect Environmentally Conscious Candidates… And Vote With Your Wallet, Too

The need for the American public to elect officials who will extend stronger regulations, and even ban factory farms, is long overdue, so that our country’s agricultural system can return to one led by independent farmers following sustainable practices. 

Along with increasing demands of those in office to stand up to this billion-dollar industry, we must also use our power as consumers. By cutting cheap fast food and supermarket meat and dairy from our diets, while choosing to buy “pasture raised” or at least “free range” from local-independent farms when we do buy meat, we will tell the factory farming industry that they must change the way they operate if they want to continue to make profits. Even more, from a consumer health perspective these products contain less antibiotic resistant bacteria linked to food-bourne illness.

While these sustainably produced foods may cost a bit more at the store, they cost us all much less in the grand scheme of things. The power of consumers has been shown lately in the growth of the alternative meat industry with the success of startups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and these massive corporations are taking notice.

Question Factory Farming Norms

The environmental impact of factory farming is clearly severe and wide-reaching. As consumers continue to buy cheap meat from unsustainable sources and federal and state governments continue to allow these companies such as Tyson, Perdue, and Cargill to operate unregulated, the current situation will only get worse for those left to deal with the consequences. It is also important to realize that due to the complex web that are ecosystems, we are likely underestimating the true extent of the damage. This has been seen in many environmental studies and models, including those of climate change, where each year scientists find new variables that reveal a bleaker outlook on the true damage. 

Along with the costs that American citizens face, these huge companies that have no connection to their animals are inflicting unbelievable physical and emotional pain on self-aware beings. While these animals live their lives in extreme confinement unable to even turn around, there are countless examples of cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys being abused and beaten, even chicks being thrown in meat grinders while alive. 

Along with increasing demands of those in office to stand up to this billion-dollar industry, we must also use our power as consumers.

As individuals we must start questioning why something is the way that it is, and why don’t we do it a better way? Is this because we do not like to change, or to question ourselves despite newly acquired knowledge? We have to look at our own decisions as we all have opportunities to force the improvement of our agricultural system. We need to demand the necessary improvements through who we elect to office and in our purchasing power as consumers. Industrial agriculture and our diets must change if the world is to prosper.

Article by Paul Recupero, Esq.
Paul graduated Magna Cum Laude from Pace Law School, rated number one in the nation for environmental law in 2019, with a certificate in Environmental Law. His legal education in administrative agencies of government, environmental law, and corporate law has given him a broad base from which to approach issues that impact the American public. As an attorney, Paul works in multiple practice areas, including federal regulatory law, government contracting, and litigation.

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  1. Incredible Paul. So much respect for your effort and knowledge on this topic. Thank you for compiling the data and putting together this information to educate us.
    Love you and proud of your work!

    1. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! Food is so political, and despite teaching that for a decade at the college level in my nutrition courses, I still learned a lot from this article that my brother wrote, too! Knowledge is power.

  2. Great presentation of the statistics! Coming from a small family farm background, this is terrific! Thank you for your service in this crucial area of public health and environmental safety (animals too!)

    1. So appreciate your feedback and that you have that background! My heart breaks for all of the farmers who struggle to make ends meet and those who are forced to run their farms in ways they’d prefer not due to the shift in agricultural power.

  3. I am an ag producer and the push to have larger and larger operations isn’t due to lax environmental regulations, but rather because guys like me like to be able to support their families in a manner akin to our urban peers. We could still farm the way my great grandparents did, with 60 acres, a mule, 3 cows and a dozen chickens. And we wouldn’t make enough to pay property taxes, let alone cars, house, clothes, and everything else.
    People don’t want to pay a significant portion of their income for food. That, and government interference into commodity markets, ensure larger and larger farms.

    1. I think it depends on perspective if you think it’s due to lax government regulations. It is clear that there is not enough oversight to keep farms and people safe when it comes to food bourne illnesses and runoff that impact community and marine pollution. It isn’t fair at all that farmers need to operate in the ways they do to make enough money – as you mentioned, people in our country spend significantly less on food than the vast majority of the world, and our consumers always want more for less. The food waste in our country alone (40% as I’m sure you know) is so disrespectful to the work farmers put in, because people are so far removed from what it takes to produce quality food. But, back to the government… as you mentioned commodity markets, and where the government decides to put tax dollars impacts production without a care for environmental effects. It isn’t all meant to harm he environment and the farm workers exposed to the pesticides and rough working conditions, but lobbying and money come first to most lawmakers. Instead of bailing out billion dollar companies, the government could choose to better support farms, farmers and our food system while also doing better for our environment that is in danger.