Public Health Experts Support a Ban on CAFOs. New Polling Suggests the Public Does, Too

A food policy expert at Johns Hopkins says the future of our food system depends on reining in industrial animal agriculture.



In a bold move, the American Public Health Association (APHA) recently called for a ban on new or expanded large-scale animal farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. The group has also endorsed legislation proposed by Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) just yesterday that pushes for a ban on new operations. In these facilities, animals are packed into structures by the thousands, typically unable to move and rarely allowed outside. Today, more than 90 percent of all livestock raised in the United States is produced this way.

“CAFOs are directly associated with occupational and community health risks, as well as the social and economic decline of rural communities,” said the APHA. Those human health impacts stem in particular from the large quantities of waste produce produced on these farms. Nitrogen from that waste, seeps into surface and groundwater and has been linked to some forms of cancer. Ammonia from the waste affects air quality and can lead to asthma for nearby communities. These operations also produce persistent odors that affect nearby communities, and often spray animal waste that falls from the sky like rain. Furthermore, large scale animal producers often treat animals with antibiotics even when they’re not sick, fueling a looming antibiotic resistance crisis.

People who live near CAFOs have long fought for stronger policy limits. Several states and counties are debating moratoriums on large animal operation permits, including the state of Iowa, in Utah’s Millard County and Crawford County in Wisconsin. In Michigan, regulators recently proposed restricting CAFOs’ ability to spread animal waste. And North Carolina, a big player in industrial animal agriculture, passed a ban on new CAFO permits in 2007.

Now, for the first time, we’re getting a better sense of how Americans think the government should respond to the nationwide spread of these large operations. New polling from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research suggests a growing desire, across state and partisan lines, for policy protections from the dangers posed by CAFOs.

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According to the poll findings, a majority of the 1,000 national respondents interviewed said they support greater oversight of industrial animal farms—and a plurality support a national ban on the creation of new CAFOs by a five-point margin. Health concerns are a key factor driving this response—eight out of 10 people surveyed expressed concern about air and water pollution, worker safety, and health problems caused by these large animal operations.

Some of the states that are most affected by CAFOs have already implemented policies designed to limit their spread. In North Carolina, which produces the second-most hogs of any state, most of which are grown in CAFOs, voters continue to show strong support for the 2007 statewide ban on new permits. Fifty-seven percent of residents surveyed saying they favor the ban, compared to only 27 percent who oppose it.

North Carolinians are still worried about large-scale animal agriculture contaminating air and water—and with good reason. The number of animals living on CAFOs in North Carolina now totals more than 102 million. During floods and hurricanes, hazardous waste from the state’s industrial hog operations can spill into waterways and nearby communities and devastate local farmers trying to hold their own. In North Carolina, 50 percent of survey respondents supported broadening the state’s current ban on new CAFOs to limit the expansion of existing ones, meaning they would not be allowed to grow.

Neighboring communities may pay the highest price, but food, air, and water quality affect the health of every American. Among scientists and public health officials, the consensus on these impacts is growing. As Americans signal their desire and need for a food system that is safe and sustainable for the long-term, lawmakers at the state and federal level should consider stronger limits on CAFOs and policies to establish more effective oversight of existing ones. The future of our food system—and our health—depends on it.

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View Comments (11)

  1. Tuesday, December 17th, 2019
    Hi Rob,

    Thanks for highlighting the public health impacts of CAFOs. And theres also major pollution from the slaughterhouses where the CAFOs send their livestock. We'll have some breaking news on that front tomorrow.

    Feel free to give me a call. 617 997-8296

    John
  2. MRS ALICE URBAN
    Tuesday, December 17th, 2019
    The horrendous practice of confined animals who live this life of torture, are fed large quantities of antibiotics which affect all of us, needs to end!
    • Chris123
      Thursday, December 19th, 2019
      Being designated as a CAFO has nothing to do with confinement. It is simply a designation of having more than a certain threshold number of animals in one location. For example in dairy CAFOs the cows typically move freely around. Moreover, lactating cows are not routinely fed antibiotics.
  3. Leon Starkman
    Wednesday, December 18th, 2019
    Fine article
  4. Chris123
    Thursday, December 19th, 2019
    It's worth noting that there is some nuance here. The CAFO designation can cover a pretty wide range of farm sizes. In dairy, one becomes a CAFO at 300 milking cows, which is really not particularly large - I would say it is average for full-time dairy farms.

    Booker, If I have read correctly, is proposing a moratorium on large CAFOs, not all of them.
  5. Friday, December 20th, 2019
    My comment is this, so many people are carnivores, and don't realise or don't care where there meat comes from or what these factory farms inject into cattle and pigs to prevent disease because these large overcrowded Jamed together that farm animals can't move and they relieve themselves, there feces and urine on each other and stand in their waste and they suffer until they are pushed through so fast for inspection and then as they continue to be slaughtered are severely abused so inhumanely in these factory farms and slaughter houses ,if normal humanbeans would see with there own eyes and hear with there ears I don'T really think or want to believe that these humans would eat this factory tortured, diseased farm animals meat!!!!!!°° What happen to normal humane farming?? If any humanebean really cares for compassion in farming in descent humane ways then open your eyes and your mind and take action in any way you can, let's ACT NOW!@
  6. Dorothy Robertson
    Saturday, December 21st, 2019
    Willing to bet most people surveyed cant tell you what a CAFO is.

    "In animal husbandry, a concentrated animal feeding operation, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, is an intensive animal feeding operation in which over 1000 animal units are confined for over 45 days a year. An animal unit is the equivalent of 1000 pounds of "live" animal weight."

    Animals dont spend their entire lives there. In the case of beef cattle, for example, they are pasture or range fed until nearing slaughter size and are on feedlots only to be fed grain and concentrates to "finish" them, put on weight in the form of fat that produces the marbled meat the American public demands.

    Cory Booker is vegan and objects to ANY use of animal products. He probably has a vehicle that runs on roads, has sheetrock and paint in his home and office, and uses a cell phone and computer...all of which use products derived from animals fed on CAFO's the last month or so before slaughter.
    • Holly Franks
      Thursday, December 26th, 2019
      Interesting, how specifically are these animal products used in cell phones and dry wall? I’m interested to learn this information for defending the regenerative farming movement against plant based propaganda that will not repair the earth, in fact , cause further damage.
  7. Debra
    Saturday, December 21st, 2019
    These huge farms are there to feed the world using less resources and more meat. The small farms are being attacked at the same time.
    The goal is to eliminate farming of animals for food. Nothing is said at what this will do to human populations. Is there no concerns or the environment and extremist dictate. This more than likely will take meat off your table, definitely make it more expensive. Small farms will never be able to stand up to these extremists and will not last.
  8. Dirk Adams
    Saturday, December 21st, 2019
    Mr. Martin: I am a 2019 Fellow in Harvard University's Advanced Leadership Initiative. I also am a cattle rancher in Montana. I oppose large scale CAFO's.

    But really, can't you make some effort to get your facts right? You do not build trust with the agriculture community when you are not accurate.

    The fundamental problem is that you conflate hog confinement operations with cattle feedlots. They both have challenges and some of those challenges are the same. But, they are not identical and you know that. It is simply not true that cattle feedlots crowd their cattle so they cannot move and it is not true that the cattle are kept inside. In fact they are corralled outside exclusively.

    I want you to be successful in crimping these large CAFO operations but start by getting your facts accurate. Thanks.
  9. Diana Lovejoy
    Saturday, December 28th, 2019
    I hope they are banned, they are cruel, unsanitary and disgusting. I buy my meat from health food stores which obtain it from local,farmers. Pasture raised, organic or natural.