Size Matters: From an Energy and Environmental Standpoint, the Larger the Livestock Farm the Better (part 3)
This is a guest post from Tom Cully, a student at Indiana Wesleyan. This post covers the ‘hot button’ topic of livestock operations. This and subsequent posts will be based on an excellent paper that Mr. Cully wrote. I will publish his paper over the course of several posts.
Though some claim that the benefits of large farms are impressive, most argue that large farms are environmental threats, hazardous to one’s health, inefficient, and even unethically driven to produce more. The main proponents, including most of the general public, many small farmers, and several private organizations, are battling fervently to keep large farms out of the American agricultural system. Nationally appreciated groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Sierra Club, and the Farm Sanctuary are doing everything in their power to prevent large farm industry from spreading and potentially ruining more than just our nation’s agricultural practices. In fact, the means and methods of today’s large farms can be considered quite destructive and the reasoning is eye opening.
The environment is this world’s largest non-renewable resource that has been blessed into mankind’s possession by some supernatural or statistical force. However, as farm size increases, so does devastation to both our already struggling water and air quality. Our diminishing clean freshwater sources are taking the largest environmental hit from these farms. As the farms grow in size, so do the concentrations of animal waste and decomposing material per unit of area. Water is polluted in several ways from these “factory farms,” beginning with waste. The lagoons and holding tanks responsible for containing all of the liquid feces, antibiotics, and other natural farm wastes can leak or overflow. This causes immediate danger to surrounding freshwater supply by killing fish and harming wildlife. Farms are also using large amounts of natural freshwater for drinking, cleaning, and cooling.10 Much farm waste is ultimately disposed of as fertilizer and applied to nearby fields. After heavy rainfall, this fertilizer, which is nutrient rich with nitrogen, phosphorus and other carbonic compounds, is then leeched into even more freshwater streams, lakes, and rivers. The nutrients that collect in common waterways attract bacteria, which are also rampant among the dead carcass collections of these farms. Corpses are often times stored in large piles and left to rot through bacterial decomposition. These sources of bacteria can then deplete water of much needed oxygen. This oxygen depletion is linked to a condition known as hypoxia, a known killer of fish and plants. However, perhaps most important is the effect of high nitrogen levels that seep into local wells and reservoirs. Contamination of drinking water can cause a variety of problems. This issue can pose serious health threats and possibly jeopardize a community’s safety.
Unfortunately, issues of safety do not stop with water pollution. An area infected with large farms also experiences significant air quality concerns. Most noticeable perhaps, is the elevation in ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other organic volatile substance levels. While ammonia, methane, and the other organic substances cause concern to only a local level of the community, hydrogen sulfide has proved to be detectable within a region-wide margin. Malodor caused by these substances is identifiable in most cases and nauseating in some. Even more important than the disgusting smells are their harmful effects on the biological body. In some cases the airborne particulate matter can be traced to cause adult and adolescent onset allergic asthma. Endotoxins, such as lipopolysaccharides (LPS), are airborne toxins secreted by bacteria that can cause mild forms of respiratory inflammation and wheezing. These pollutants can affect both employees and nearby inhabitants of these “efficient” farms, not to mention the animals themselves.
Efficiency is also a formidable oppositional strength. Large farms, though producing more quantity, lack the quality of service produced by smaller farms. First, and perhaps most unnoticed, is the lack of breed diversity. Large farms are attracted to the leading breeds of each product. Only the highest yielding breeds are being reproduced in the large farms, which will lead to livestock endangerment and possible extinction. The continual use of single breeds also sets the stage for mass genetic failure. As different breeds are prone to different diseases, viruses, and injuries, one major outbreak of any significance could irreversibly halt the production of some foods. Viruses can also be capable of spreading from animals to humans through ingestion, and cause a number of serious diseases, such as avian influenza, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Inefficiency also seems to manifest itself through a decrease in food quality. As farm size decreases, the operators are responsible for fewer animals and can then devote more attention to each one of them. A study shows that cattle raised on open pastures, consistently produce a higher quality beef and milk. Therefore, in regards to efficiency, when farms are so large that they produce a product that is of lower quality, harmful to the environment, and generally upsets a majority of the community, they must be inefficient.
Aside from the barrage of environmental and efficiency issues posed by the larger farms, are those of ethical concern. Perhaps the most heated debate lies in this moral category between animal rights advocates and operators. Animal rights activists are trying to expose the harmful techniques and methods used to care for farm animals. Large farms are especially prone to inhumane treatment including practices such as castrating, tail docking, confinement, tooth cutting, and beak trimming. These practices are not only cruel but painful to the animals. As the pain, discomfort, and stress of large farm livestock increases, animals become susceptible to disease and are limited in growth. Also, with restricted space and added stress, animals are not able to act naturally and often become aggressive or agitated. For these reasons, a large number of people are insistently fighting to protect the inherent rights of animals by advocating small farms. Small farms, with more limited resources, have to make each and every animal a necessity for survival. Large farms are known for treating animals with disrespect due to their high numbers. Individual animals are of no concern, because they are merely concerned with producing the highest number of units for the smallest price, despite the obliteration of an animal’s character, value, and life.