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Down to Earth: The Environmental Beef with Industrial Agriculture

Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado discusses confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, and their effects on people's health and the environment.

Length: 19 min 47 sec

Recorded: August 2012

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In this Down to Earth episode, Earthjustice staffer Jessica Knoblauch speaks with Marianne Engelman Lado, an attorney in Earthjustice's Northeast regional office.

Currently, Marianne is defending North Carolina's right to regulate ammonia pollution from confined animal feeding operations, commonly called CAFOs. These facilities, which often house tens of thousands of animals, create massive amounts of toxic waste that fouls nearby waterways and air quality. Yet, little regulation for these facilities exists.

Jessica Knoblauch: So we're working on a case about CAFOs, and these are Confined Animal Feeding Operations. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Marianne Engelman Lado: So I think in our imaginations and for many of us in our experiences we think of a family farm with perhaps a garden and maybe some chickens. And it has a manageable number of animals, and there's a relationship between the people and the animals.

Industrial agriculture or concentrated or confined animal feeding operations are very different kinds of facilities. Some people would question whether they're actually farms. They concentrate many, many animals—often only one type of animal, so only pigs or only chickens in a very large facility.

Oftentimes, the animals are with thousands upon thousands of animals like them. And often the animals don't spend any time outside, so they're not grazing, they're not exposed to the air. They're in a facility. It's not the old-fashioned barn we think of. And it's really an industrial system with feeding automated, climate control.

They're really commodities, and there are a lot of issues that flow from that, including the problem that when CAFOs come into an area, even an area that used to have old-fashioned farms, there are often fewer farms. So the move toward industrial agriculture not only has an impact on food and animal husbandry but also farming.

Jessica: I've definitely heard the argument that CAFOs are just a way to maximize efficiency. What's your counter-argument to that?

Marianne: Well we've been working with Riverkeepers and other groups in North Carolina and one of the lessons learned by the experience in eastern North Carolina with many of these CAFOs, and particularly swine CAFOS and now more recently poultry CAFOS, is where you have a lot of animals concentrated, you also have a lot of waste.

So if you have a handful or some number for a viable farm, you have a certain amount of waste. But if you have 10,000 pigs in a particular location, that means a lot of waste in one location. And the question is, "What do you do with that waste?"

And so, one of the problems that has been experienced in eastern North Carolina is that there is so much waste that's concentrated in eastern North Carolina. And in the case of swine farms, the waste is concentrated in open lagoons, which are like open waste ponds with all the volatiles, all the smell that comes out of a lagoon. And then once the waste settles, the liquid from the waste is actually sprayed on fields.

So one of the problems is what happens to all this waste? And, of course, over time over the last couple of decades, people's experience is that the waste contaminates nearby waters; that in storms and hurricanes, the lagoons flood.

So there are a lot of issues, and people are concerned about the healthiness of food, people are concerned about antibiotic use, the use of arsenic in chicken feed, and all of this, of course, comes out the other side in waste. So we not only have a lot of waste concentrated from CAFOS, but also waste with antibiotics or the remnants of arsenic, which again affects area waterways, the land and people's health.

One of the concerns in eastern North Carolina and in other communities across the Southeast in particular, Mississippi and in Georgia, for example, is that the location of swine CAFOs and also increasingly poultry are disproportionately in low-income communities of color. And some of the health impacts, as well as the water and environmental impacts, but particularly the health impacts are felt disproportionately by kids of color and communities of color.

And Steve Wing and other researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill have done a lot of research that has some disturbing findings about the impact of living or going to school near particularly swine CAFOs on children's health and has found a relationship between when hydrogen sulfide is smelled or when you have that rotten egg odor and the triggering of asthma symptoms, for example.

So there are real connections and scientific epidemiological study out there to confirm what people's experience is, that the air pollution and the water pollution actually has a significant impact on the health of people living in the area.

Epidemiological studies have confirmed that air and water pollution from CAFOs have a significant impact on the health of people living in the area.

Jessica: You mentioned there's a lot of antibiotic use in these CAFOs. Is that something you find typically on a family farm? I mean, aren't antibiotics just sort of part of life, or is there more antibiotic use on CAFO farms?

Marianne: When animals are concentrated in very small spaces, the fear is that illness to one animal can sweep through and affect all animals. Also, when we've limited biodiversity, they have more uniformity even within a species, so more uniformity in the poultry or more uniformity in the pigs, and so there's more susceptibility to disease and disease spreading more quickly. So there's an incentive to use antibiotics preventively. And then, even if it's not used preventively, if one animal gets sick, to use antibiotics for the whole flock.

And so there has been an enormous growth in antibiotic use that has accompanied the growth of industrial agriculture. Something like 70 to 80 percent of antibiotic use in this country is for animals currently.

Jessica: So the case that we have out of North Carolina, Rose Acre Farms, we're trying to clean up the ammonia pollution there. Can you talk a little about where that ammonia comes from and why it's such a health hazard?

Marianne: Rose Acre Farms is an enormous facility. It's built to house four million egg-laying hens. And so again we have the concentration of waste in a particular location.

In 2004, when this facility was just opening, it was sited in a location right near a national wildlife refuge with two endangered species and a tremendous amount of water, wetland and swamp land. And there was a concern at the time that the way the waste was being managed would have an impact on this wetland and on the national wildlife refuge.

Rose Acre Farms is located adjacent to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (area shaded in white). Ventilation fans blow contamination over refuge land and water bodies. View larger map.

What happens is the facilities have dry litter, and so all that manure, all that ammonia, all that contamination builds up in these large, we'll call them a henhouse, but a facility. And were they not sent into the air outside of the henhouse, the chickens would asphyxiate and workers would asphyxiate. So they need to send it out, and what they do is they have very large ventilation fans, and these ventilation fans blow the contamination right out over toward the national wildlife refuge.

Fortunately, because there was concern about the contamination reaching the national wildlife refuge, the state and the federal government started monitoring the water and found, of course, that there were increases in contamination and contaminate levels in the wildlife refuge and in the waters nearby. And so that's the basis of this lawsuit, that states have the ability to regulate that contamination going into the water.

You asked earlier about people saying that these large CAFOs are more efficient or that these large CAFOs produce food that is more plentiful or cheaper, and I think increasingly we're finding research that questions those assumptions.

The cost of food coming out of a CAFO is kept artificially low because … [its] contamination … is being borne by society, by the animals, by the wildlife, by neighbors, by people who have asthma, by the healthcare system. And the true cost of cleaning up the mess is not being borne by the industry.

One way to think about this is that the cost of food coming out of a CAFO is kept artificially low because those ventilation fans are blowing the contamination elsewhere where the cost is being borne by society, by the animals, by the wildlife, by neighbors, by people who have asthma, by the healthcare system. And the true cost of cleaning up the mess is not being borne by the industry.

And increasingly what we're noticing is that there are tremendous risks from the concentration of animal feeding operations. There are risks associated with the antibiotic use, the arsenic in feeds, the risks to human health associated with air pollution. There are risks associated with water pollution from the overflow from swine lagoons. There are risks associated with industrial agriculture in the context outside of CAFOs in the greater use of pesticides, the kind of mechanization that is reliant on toxic chemicals of all sorts to produce food.

And, increasingly research shows that this is affecting people's quality of life. It might be the farmworkers whose children are being exposed to the drift of toxic chemicals, of pesticides coming from the fields. And it might be low-income communities of color living in the coastal floodplains of eastern North Carolina that are experiencing the fallout from such a high concentration of poultry operations and swine operations.

Jessica: So why did we try to go after this specific CAFO? What is so unique about this case?

Marianne: What happened in Rose Acre Farms is they actually had a permit to operate under the Clean Water Act and they applied to renew their permit under the Clean Water Act. And when the state said, "Well, we've seen that there's more pollution in the area waterways, so we'll give you another permit, but we'd like you to do some more monitoring and some other mild restrictions," Rose Acre Farms said, "Oh no. We don't want to abide by those kinds of restrictions."

Again, they were going to be allowed to operate, but they were being asked to just monitor and study how they might reduce emissions. But they didn't want to do that, so they took the state to what's called a contested proceeding challenging these restrictions on their permit. Ultimately, the poultry industry intervened and joined Rose Acre Farms, and together they have challenged the state's very authority to require a permit under the Clean Water Act.

And when folks told us about this, we kind of said, "No, you're kidding right?" So if this facility with 3.2 million chickens can't be regulated by the state, we've got to wonder what facilities can. And so we thought we need to jump in on the side of the state and make sure that states have authority, and North Carolina in particular, has authority to regulate this kind of facility.

If this facility with 3.2 million chickens can't be regulated by the state, we've got to wonder what facilities can.

Jessica: Rose Acre is not denying that these emissions happen, but their argument is that the method by which they're being transported is not regulated under the Clean Water Act?

Marianne: They're arguing that because the waste is blown by fans out over the water and then all this waste is deposited into the water, but because it doesn't go from a pipe into the water but goes through the ventilator fans into the water that this can't constitute a discharge of pollutants into the waters under the Clean Water Act. And of course, it can. There's plenty of case law and support for the argument that even if pollutants come through the air and land into the waters that that could be a discharge.

It's very important to recognize Clean Water Act authority because there is a value in protecting water. So the principle here is, if you discharge into water, you should be accountable for that discharge.

Jessica: In 2011, the EPA completed a two year air pollution study on CAFOs. I was curious, had the EPA ever done this before, or was this the first time that they'd ever looked into this?

It's very important to recognize Clean Water Act authority because there is a value in protecting water. So the principle here is, if you discharge into water, you should be accountable for that discharge.

Marianne: The EPA's national monitoring study is really the first of its kind. CAFOs have all but gotten a pass on air pollution, perhaps because we do have this romantic notion in our minds of these mom and pop farms, some of which still exist today. But those are images we have that don't fit with Rose Acre Farms and their four million chickens. They don't fit with a facility with 10,000 swine. They're very, very different.

I think when people go to the grocery store and they get some chicken, they're still thinking, "Well, this chicken comes from the kind of farm I have in my mind." And certainly industry perpetuates that. So there hasn't been a lot of awareness of how much pollution can come from this kind of facility.

The amount of waste is beyond belief. I'm not going to capture it exactly, but the amount of waste from hogs in eastern North Carolina, by itself, is the equivalent of something like the human waste from 10 significant states. And if you think about all the regulation, what you need to do with septic tanks and sewage systems to deal human waste and to make sure it doesn't contaminate our water system, and you compare that with the utter lack of sufficient regulation of swine waste in eastern North Carolina, it's just astounding.

It really boggles the mind that there isn't appropriate reporting, that there aren't appropriate standards set, and that the industrial facilities have been all but exempted from laws. And so it's really high time for EPA to be analyzing what kind of contaminants are coming from these kinds of facilities and what are the appropriate types of regulations and standards that would protect human health and protect our waterways and our air.

Jessica: I feel like there was a story a couple of months back about asking these facilities to voluntarily monitor their emissions and there was some push-back about that from the industry?

CAFOs generate enormous quantities of waste. In storms and hurricanes, the open waste lagoons can flood, contaminating nearby water bodies. (EPA)

Marianne: Over the last few years, there was a retreat from even beginning to regulate air emissions from CAFOs. And there were a number of lawsuits brought, some by Earthjustice, to ensure that the federal government did an adequate job in collecting information and requiring reporting of air emissions. And those lawsuits led to dialogue with EPA and in turn that led to the monitoring study.

In the meantime, EPA's approach with so many things has been, "Let's see if we can get reporting that's voluntary. Let's see if we can get industry to give us what they haven't given us in the past. Or let's see if we can collect information that's already out there."

And some of that could be a good idea. But reporting from state-to-state and from locality-to-locality is not uniform, it's not complete, and EPA has a responsibility to make sure that air pollution is known about and controlled and that water pollution is known about and controlled. And so any system that is incomplete and not standard is going to have some holes in it.

Jessica: Are there any CAFOs that are doing this right, in terms of taking proper care of their water and air pollution?

Marianne: We have a long way to go before we could say whether, given appropriate controls, given appropriate waste management techniques, concentrated animal feeding operations might not have the impacts that we're seeing today. We need to put those controls into place before even beginning to answer that question. But what we know now is the way in which CAFOs are operating and industrial agriculture is operating right now, we're on a path to more and more use of chemicals, more and more concentration.

There are a broad array of groups that are deeply concerned about the growth of industrial agriculture. Some of them come at this from out of a concern for environment. Many of our partners and the community groups we've been speaking with are deeply concerned about the impact on human health and vulnerable populations. There are also deep concerns about the environmental justice impacts, about the disproportionate impacts borne by low income communities and communities of color. Other people, of course, are concerned about the decline of family farms.

Society can't continue picking up the long term cost in terms of our health and the environment without having a more meaningful discussion about whether this is the way we can and want to live.

If you think about industrial agriculture almost as a continuum that is increasingly reliant on mechanized systems for commodifying animals and treating them as a commodity, there are different community groups and different partners that are focused on parts of that continuum. These are different pieces of the puzzle and we have to address the environmental and human health consequences or what sometimes we call the externalities of the industry so that we can find ways to have a more healthful system of food production.

We're seeing a growth in awareness, a growth in interest in how our food is being produced precisely because we're on a path that just simply isn't sustainable. And society can't continue picking up the long term cost in terms of our health and the environment without having a more meaningful discussion about whether this is the way we can and want to live.

Marianne Engelman Lado is an attorney at Earthjustice's Northeast regional office. She works on environmental and public health litigation, including on chemical oil dispersants, like those used during the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, and lead in the fuel used by general aviation planes.

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