Murmurs of disgust were sprinkled throughout a packed lecture hall at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law as law students looked at pictures of waste pits overflowing with animal poop last week. Their lecturer, Kim Ferraro of the Hoosier Environmental Council, spared no sensitive stomachs as she explained the process of industrial farming and the disposal of the billions of pounds of animal urine and feces that ensue.
The HEC agriculture policy director and attorney discussed the transition of traditional farming to big industry, offering the opinion that updates to the law in this area are much overdue.
“Today’s market is dominated by a handful of companies that control the slaughter processing of most livestock,” Ferraro said. “This is not mom and pop’s farm with some chickens and cows out in the pasture. These are industrial facilities.”
Those facilities are known as CAFOS, or concentrated animal feeding operations, where, according to Ferraro, thousands of animals are crammed into cages together. With all of that livestock comes a massive amount of waste, which Ferraro said can end up in several places –none of which, she said, are good.
First, Ferraro said CAFOs might dispose of livestock waste into unlined, earthen lagoons than can be larger than two football fields in length. Or, the waste could be filled into a round, uncovered concrete slurry. But neither of those are great options, Ferraro said, because both are prone to overflow when it rains or floods, spreading the waste into communities, underground water sources and rivers and other crop fields.
“Oftentimes in rural communities, many of these people do rely on wells for drinking water, and this has proven to be catastrophic to their drinking water supply,” she said.
Indiana currently serves as home to nearly 800 CAFOs that are subject to state law, but have limited federal responsibilities. According to Ferraro, quality of life for her clients living near or around such industrial farms is a serious issue that is usually overlooked.
“Because of the image that many people have of ‘traditional’ farming, the industry has been able to resist any sort of regulations to address these problems allowing people to seriously suffer in their environments,” she said.
Children living near or around CAFOs, where emissions of gas and toxins are pumped into the air, have seen an increased percentage of asthma and fatigue, Ferraro said. Small farms and homes that once flourished in those areas are now trapped, covered in swarms of flies, insects and infestations of rodents, she said.
Ferraro argued that the transparency between the CAFO operators, Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the public is all but nonexistent.
“If an applicant for a CAFO meets the rule requirements, IDEM must approve it, she said. “The agency has no authority to deny a permit based on threats to the public health and the environment that might come from locating a CAFO on land where it shouldn’t be, or the fact that the emissions are going to cause health threats to neighbors.”
On a practical level, Ferraro said the students could aid in efforts to increase accountability by not waiting for policy change and making smart choices about where to purchase food and how much meat to eat.
Worldwide, 70 billion animals are raised for slaughter every year, 10 billion of which are raised for U.S. consumption, she said. Those 10 billion animals consume half of the grain grown and fresh water available in the country.
“Just even reducing the amount of food you eat could make a huge impact on the environment,” Ferraro said. “At this rate we’re currently growing enough food to feed 10 billion people, but most of that food is going to raise livestock. So if we keep going at this rate we’re going to need several planets to raise all the food that we need, and we only have one.”