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The CAFO Hothouse: Climate Change, Industrial Agriculture and the Law


AUTHOR: David N. Cassuto
TITLE: The CAFO Hothouse: Climate Change, Industrial Agriculture and the Law

PUBLICATION PLACE: Animals & Society Institute (Ann Arbor)
Reproduced with express authorization of the author in: dA web Center, June 2010


The issue of climate change has at long last made its way into mainstream policy discussions in the United States. However, the focus both in the United States and internationally has been on reducing energy production and transportation emissions. This has led the media, policy makers and the public to overlook industrial agriculture, one of the principal contributors to global greenhouse emissions. Industrial agriculture – particularly industrial livestock activity – emits significant (and growing) amounts not only of carbon dioxide, but also of more pernicious greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4). In fact, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture far exceed those from transportation. Yet, for reasons both cultural and political, agriculture remains almost unregulated.

This lack of regulation stems in large part from a concerted effort by corporate growers to portray themselves as small farmers who live off the land in harmony with their surroundings. But the truth is that they are not and they do not. Unlike their smaller, family-farm predecessors, factory farm/industrial livestock operations (called concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs) do not operate at near equilibrium with their immediate environment. Instead, environmental, social, nutritional and public health costs are externalized and livestock operations are consolidated to maximize animal protein output.

As global demand for meat rises, it spurs conversion of forests to pasture and to fields on which to grow feed crops. This in turn elevates the need for fossil fuel-based fertilizers and increases manure production. These factors combine to exacerbate carbon, methane and nitrous oxide emissions. The emissions in turn accelerate climate change, causing a pernicious feedback loop.

Legal responses to climate change have largely ignored CAFOs, and national regulations are few. Meanwhile, national economic policies favor industrial agriculture through subsidies, price controls and import levies. Ironically, this preferential regulatory treatment reflects the national attachment to and political and cultural cachet of family farms. The policies are depicted as integral to a broad-based cultural effort to protect small farms even as their ruinous impact on those same family farms continues unchecked.

This essay explores how industrial livestock operations contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gases while receiving little criticism but extensive financial incentives. It discusses the range of climate change impacts from factory-farming operations and explores their direct and indirect climate costs. It then summarizes the scientific, economic and regulatory responses to the issue. The essay concludes by offering some thoughts on solutions that link social farming paradigms, ethical imperatives, and climate change mitigation all at once.

factory farms, CAFOs, climate change, global warming, industrial agriculture, animal welfare, animal agriculture, livestock operations, carbon emissions, greenhouse gases, greenhouse effect, agricultural policy, environment, environmental law, Clean Water Act, environmental policy, animal cruelty, sustainability

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