CAFOs—the Strangefolk Have Arrived

By: Christopher Makowski

In “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head,” the quasi-virtual band Gorillaz imagines an all-too-real scenario of industry impacts on a resource-full community—the “Happyfolk.”[1] The industry group, referred to as “Strangefolk,” surreptitiously enters the community—“and no one noticed them/They only saw shadows”[2]— and mine the resources of the Happyfolk’s sacred land, the “Mountain Called Monkey.” However, before the Mountain’s resources are depleted, the spirit of the Mountain fights back—it erupts, wiping out both the Strangefolk and Happyfolk. Like the Strangefolk, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have embarked on our land, under-the-cover of public-blissful ignorance. While the natural environment has yet to “erupt,” the signs of eradication are apparent.[3] However, one need not look to a “Mountain Called Monkey”; rather, the communities in which CAFOs inhabit.

CAFOs are dangerous. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that the agricultural industry—“Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)”—is the second leading contributor to climate change, “mainly from deforestation and agricultural emissions from livestock, soil[,] and nutrient management.”[4] While the “true” impacts of anthropogenic climate change are still hotly debated,[5] what is undebatable is that rural communities are fading due to the shift from Farmer Jane to Farmer Corporation.

Land “is finite and provides a latitude of goods and ecosystem services that are fundamental to human well-being.”[6] Where a CAFO sets foot has direct impacts on that community and its services, “rural communities and low-income communities of color disproportionately suffer and are forced to deal directly with catastrophic air and water pollution.”[7] The argument exists, however, that CAFOs have brought positive change—the efficiency of CAFO operations “allow food production to keep pace with a growing population, while its economies of scale would ensure that farming remain a profitable business.”[8] Nevertheless, its externalities are tumultuous.[9] Additionally, the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment report notes, “[h]uman economies and quality of life are directly dependent on the services and the resources provided by land.”[10] A notion all too true for small, independent farmers. Barb Kalbach, one of the last farmers in a rural community in southwestern Iowa—disappearing under the thumb of corporate farmers—is one sad example.[11]

Kalbach once raised livestock and grew crops such as “’corn, beans, hay[,] and oats.’”[12] Living the country-song life until the Strangefolk arrived. CAFOs operate as “megaproducers” to which farmers sell livestock and feed for public consumption.[13] Being the only game in town, CAFOs function as a monopsony, leaving farmers like Kalbach “with little choice save to accept the onerous, binding contracts they’re offered.”[14] While the Supreme Court has ruled monopsonies may be treated like monopolies under the Sherman Antitrust Act,[15] little to nothing is done to prevent such binding contracts.[16] Thus, Kalbach is now bound to the white-collar farmer, pinned against fellow blue-collar farmers:

 

[C]ompanies…dictate the way they raise their animals, setting farmers in competition with one another for production speeds and efficiency. The way you win that competition is to pack more animals into your sheds, pump them fuller of antibiotics so they don’t die from infections that flourish amid overcrowding, raise breeds that live of pain but grow with astonishing speed, create massive manure lagoons that poison streams and turn air acrid.[17]

 

Thus, to stay afloat, small, independent farmers like Kalbach have no choice but to contribute to the degradation orchestrated by CAFOs. Nevertheless, it has become a competition among these farmers. In 1990, “small and medium-sized farms accounted for nearly half of all agricultural production in the US. Now it is less than a quarter.”[18] The reality is laid-out by Joe Maxwell, a Missouri farmer and co-founder of the Family Farm Action Alliance: “‘It’s either join up with these transitional monopolies or we’re going to bankrupt you. That’s the reality of family agriculture today.’”[19]

Communities suffer as well. In Kalbach’s case, once “the medium-sized family farms retreated, the businesses they helped support disappeared:” the vets for livestock left, the “seed and equipment suppliers” too.[20] Thus, “[s]hops, restaurants[,] and doctor’s [sic] surgeries closed. People found they had to drive for an hour or more for medical treatment. Towns and counties began to share ambulances.”[21] Sustainable communities cannot coexist with CAFOs; as our reliance on CAFOs persists, so do the environmental harms. The Mountain Called Monkey has not erupted, but now that some Happyfolk can see, the issue is becoming salient: we must do something about the Strangefolk.

Image from Valley News

[1] Gorillaz, Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head, on Plastic Beach (Virgin Records 2010).

[2] Id. at 00:37.

[3] Holly Shaftel, The Effects of Climate Change, NASA, https://climate.nasa.gov/effects/ (last updated, March 8, 2021).

[4] Ottmar Edenofer et al., Climate 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Working Group III Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 816 (2014), https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_full.pdf.

[5] See generally Adam Aton, Climate Change Receives Unexpected Attention at First Presidential Debate, Scientific American (Sept. 30, 2020), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-receives-unexpected-attention-at-first-presidential-debate/.

[6] Ottamer Edenoffer, supra note 3, at 818.

[7] Katrina A. Tomas, Manure Management for Climate Change Mitigation: Regulating CAFO Greenhouse Gas Emissions Under the Clean Air Act, 73 Univ. Miami L. Rev. 531, 537 (2019).

[8] The Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture, Union of Concerned Scientists https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/hidden-costs-industrial-agriculture (updated Aug. 24, 2008).

[9] Food and the Environment, FoodPrint, https://foodprint.org/the-total-footprint-of-our-food-system/issues/food-and-the-environment/ (last visited Nov. 18, 2020) (“[T]he industrial or ‘conventional’ way of producing food causes large-scale environmental degradation…. [The] result [is] in excess animal waste that pollutes soil, water and air. These methods of food production use finite resources without replenishing them.”).

[10] Ottamer Edenoffer, supra note 3, at 818.

[11] Chris McGreal, How America’s Food Giants Swallowed the Family Farms, The Guardian (March 9, 2019, 11:30 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/09/american-food-giants-swallow-the-family-farms-iowa.

[12] Id.

[13] Ezra Klein, Farmers and Animal Rights Activists are Coming Together to Fight Big Factory Farms, Vox (Jul. 8, 2020, 8:10 AM) https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/7/8/21311327/farmers-factory-farms-cafos-animal-rights-booker-warren-khanna.

[14] Id.

[15] Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Ross-Simmons Hardwood Lumber Co., 549 U.S. 312, 321-22 (2007) (“Predatory-pricing and predatory-bidding claims are analytically similar…. The kinship between monopoly and monopsony suggests that similar legal standards should apply to claims of monopolization and to claims of monopsonization.”).

[16] But see generally Farm System Reform Act of 2019, S. 3221, 116th Cong. (2019) (as introduced by Senate, Jan. 21, 2020) (seeking to bolster antitrust regulation like, the Packers and Stockyards Act to prevent unfair competition).

[17] Ezra Klein, supra note 13.

[18] Chris McGreal supra note 11.

[19] Ezra Klein, supra note 13.

[20] Chris McGreal supra note 11.

[21] Id.

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