We Must Transform Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) into Smart Pasture Operations (SPOs)

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Photo by Fotolia/Sergey Bogdanov
The highly contagious avian flu virus spreads rapidly inside the crowded, giant barns used by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Nearly 50,000,000 chickens and turkeys living in more than 200 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and 20 backyard flocks were “depopulated” earlier this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That’s 50 million! All because of a devastating bird flu outbreak. The industry’s biosecurity procedures failed, big-time.

Most of the birds in this year’s outbreak, about which you can read more on Page 11, weren’t actually killed by the avian flu. Because the highly contagious virus spreads so rapidly in the CAFOs’ crowded, giant barns, the birds were killed by people who were paid by taxpayers to destroy all the exposed poultry as soon as a few birds were diagnosed. Estimated total cost to cope with this latest CAFO catastrophe? About $3.3 billion, plus at least $700 million in tax money, writes Maryn McKenna for National Geographic.

The media doesn’t talk much about the crowding, filth and stress that make these birds so vulnerable to infection. The CAFO industries seek “ag-gag” laws to hide what’s going on, and refuse to even allow reporters into the barns. Producers have expressed dismay that their biosecurity protocols didn’t protect their flocks from this influenza virus, which mutates often and spreads rapidly by migratory waterfowl. Surely producers could expect their low-paid workers to follow detailed hygiene rules and take great care to treat their avian wards like patients in intensive care, right? Experts expressed surprise when USDA data suggested that winds may have carried the virus into the barns. Really? Why would anyone think they could devise “biosecurity” tight enough to prevent a highly contagious, microscopic virus from getting inside these CAFOs?!

And then there’s the very real probability that this bird flu strain will eventually manage to mutate again, into a form that could infect and kill humans. If a new virus is as deadly to humans as the current form is to poultry, then continued support for the CAFO system is going to look like one of the stupidest choices of this century.

Another aspect no one talks much about is that these genetically souped-up CAFO birds are fed a highly unnatural diet of grains and vitamin powders that yields meat and eggs lacking in essential omega-3 fatty acids and various other nutrients.

Influenced by lobbyists, the government goes along with a poultry industry that’s “too big to fail.” The USDA is hiring thousands of new employees to be ready if an outbreak flares again this fall. It’s past time to admit that this CAFO system for pigs, cattle, poultry and fish is profoundly inhumane for livestock, and bad for the people who eat the resulting meat and eggs. To learn more about how you can support a transition to a better system, we highly recommend The CAFO Reader, whose authors write, “Many have been advocating for some time for an ambitious transformation in U.S. agriculture. … A smart pasture operation (SPO) … is one of the easiest entry points for beginning farmers in current U.S. agriculture. Start-up costs are relatively modest and markets for healthfully raised animal products are underserved and growing rapidly. … Reform of USDA Farm Bill programs — which pump billions of dollars and largely establish the rules of modern agriculture — are seen as an essential way to fund the transformation to a pasture-based livestock economy.”

Rallying together to push back against this system is our best hope for change. Need ammunition about the bird flu outbreak and CAFOs to share with your legislators? We recommend the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, the Humane Society’s analysis, and the website of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.