‘CAFO’ editor Daniel Imhoff talks about his new large-format book that reveals the ugly images behind factory farms

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, a large format book of essays and photographs exposing America’s uber-industrialized animal food production system, presents a flurry of disturbing content.

There are pictures of pigs, cattle and chickens in degrees of distress, packed into facilities lined with mud, manure and dead or dying inhabitants.

A cattle holding facility in Fresno County, Central Valley, California (Photo: Gary Crabbe)

The selected essays by noted agriculture experts, environmental activists and journalists delve further into this nightmare world for animals, as they peel back the curtain on the inhumane system of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The writers (Michael Pollan, Robert Kennedy Jr., Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Anna Lappe, Tom Philpott and many more) outline the growing threats posed by modern CAFOs,  examining how they damage waterways, abuse human labor, feast on fossil fuels, contribute to the loss of livestock diversity, fuel climate change and play health roulette with their dangerous reliance on antibiotics and growth hormones.

This CAFO system the essayists describe is cruel, foolish, dangerous and unsustainable.

You won’t find the “other side” of this view in CAFO, whose  raison d’etre is to counter Big Ag’s message that such a revved up system is necessary to feed the planet and that the animals within are treated well enough.

Instead, CAFO (Watershed Media/Earth Aware, October 2010) puts these assumptions to the test, telling a back story of how concentrated animal facilities aren’t even fulfilling their promise of efficiency, and beyond that, are threatening animal and human health in multiple ways. CAFOs are incubating superbugs that raise the risk of a pandemic;  degrading the environment with mountains of fecal waste and loading our plates with hormones, fat and chemicals.

Where’s the positive side? In the vision of alternative methods — also detailed in the book — that respect animal life and reconnect with natural processes, allowing livestock to feed on grass, reproduce and mature at a more nature pace.

Editor Daniel Imhoff worked on the book project for more than two years, assembling photographs and essays. He also wrote portions of the book, contributed pictures and produced a companion piece,  the CAFO Reader, a more affordable text aimed at educators, students and anyone else not ready for the fully monty of the illustrated CAFO, a $50 coffee table book that will surely keep guests alert while they await a meal. (Casual readers can find respite in the chapters about sustainable practices, which are accompanied by photos of happy farm animals and caretakers.)

CAFO is brutally honest, and scholarly, but still readable. Even the informed vegetarian, veteran environmentalist or grass-fed-only meat eater will find a fresh helping of information. One can only hope it will reach others, like the lawmakers, food wholesalers, family farmers and citizen activists who can push for a better way.

To learn out more about this call to action, we talked with Dan Imhoff, who lives in Northern California, where he writes, raises chickens and tends a family garden.

Green Right Now: The first thing I noticed when this book came was the large size, with large photos, but the topic is atypical for a coffee table book. That intrigued me, it seemed a provocative twist.

Imhoff: I call this book my ‘monster piece’. It’s monumental in size, and this book is part of a family of books (supported by the Foundation for Deep Ecology) that use this large format and also use the format of a real wide range of voices. So it’s not my words and research alone. We had 30 essayists contributing to the book.

In choosing those essays, I must have read 40 books on this subject that have appeared in the last 10 years. So there’s been a lot written about this and written really well from a lot of different perspectives, but no one has given the photographic presentation that this book offers. And just the tiniest bit of investigation into the CAFO industry tells you why, because they work really hard to make sure that their production practices are not transparent. So we spend years tracking down 6,000 photographs, from which we could choose the 450 that finally made it into the book.

You took some photos yourself?

Yes, I have been covering food and conservation-based agriculture is my true passion; that place where conservation and agriculture come together in a place I call farming with the wild. And one of my favorite things to do in the whole world is to be hanging out on my farm or to be on someone else’s, and every now and then I get to take a few photographs.

Who do you see as your audience?

Anyone who cares about the many, many facets of this issue. In particular, there are groups around the country, wherever you have the concentration of animal food production, you almost inevitably have citizen activists that are trying to fight it. Because it doesn’t take long when you have too many hog farms in your backyard that your quality of life really starts to go down. And once a critical mass is reached, then you have a real serious problem like you have in North Carolina, parts of Iowa and parts of Washington state where there’s dairy production.

And so one of the key audiences would be anyone for whom this book could be their champion. They can take it to a legislator; they can take it to an official. They can use it to actually educate.

However, I was at a meeting not long ago and I was with one of our excellent pasture-based producers here in Northern California and he just flipped over it. It explains so powerfully all the things he’s been trying to get across the customers for so many years.

That said, we’re also working with health organizations. There’s a lot of doctors, a lot of medical associations really concerned about the antibiotics that are basically the life support system for keeping so many animals packed into one area. And there’s a lot of concern among the medical community about what that’s doing to the medicines that we depend upon. You have these production diseases, they can mutate and rapidly spread and evolve in these facilities where they are using the tetracyclines and Penicillins, the antibiotics that we depend upon as humans. And when  you have these production disesase becoming resistant to these medicines we depend upon, and they go out  into the broader environment. It is a huge medical concern. I see CAFO as a very important resource for those people who are just trying to communicate, what are the impacts of this mega production.

I like how the book has a section on myths. There’s some on antibiotics in there. Are people getting antibiotic residues in their meat?

I think that’s a little harder to detect and to argue. But certainly the antibiotics do not necessarily stay with the animal. I’ve seen studies where they say 50 to 75 percent of the antibiotics just pass through the animal. Where do they go? Well, they go out into the waste. With 100,000 cattle living in one area; 10,000 hogs – a hog produces three times the waste a human does on a daily basis – you’re just putting out antibiotics among many, many other things out in this fecal waste, in this fecal torrent that’s taking over the country.

So again, what about all the bacteria? What happens when you’re releasing this many pharmaceuticals into the broader environment, into the watershed? What we’ll hear from industry is well, that’s not true, we use them really responsibly. There’s no problem there. The human diseases are a human problem not an animal production problem. Well, Dr. Thomas Friedan at the Centers for Disease Control thinks otherwise, and he’s submitted Congressional testimony to back it up. And so does the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association. This is serious business. You’re talking about our life support system that we’re going to depend upon if some disease goes rampant and becomes epidemic or pandemic.

And yet what you have is the state of North Carolina: Animal food producers use more antibiotics in the state of North Carolina than in all of human medicine. The same in Iowa. They use more antibiotics in food production for animal production than in the whole country.

We are finding pharmaceuticals in water…

It’s going out into the broader environment for sure. And you might find (growth) hormones in food.

What kind of feedback are you getting to the book, say from meat producers? It depicts a brutal system that is sped up and doesn’t care about human or animal lives?

We have not heard much yet. It didn’t hurt that a couple of days after the book came out there was a recall of 500 million eggs from two operators in Iowa.

They (CAFO operators) don’t  have a lot to hide behind right now. Before that it was 400,000 pounds  Listeria-tainted cold cuts in Walmart; before that it was a million pounds of hamburger with E coli. It’s going to be more and more difficult for these operators to defend themselves unless they really do take that step and make their production practices a lot more transparent.

A broiler chicken house. (USDA)

Having said that, we sourced all these photographs – there were 70 different contributing individuals or agencies; by number most of the pictures came from the Associated Press, and we got pictures from Reuters and Corbiss and photo agencies. We got the same pictures that newspapers could have gotten, pictures that were taken for newspapers. So no one can say that this was some kind of vegan conspiracy done in the middle of the night. We bought these pictures  from photographers that have received permission and releases for their shots.

The same goes for the essays.  You can’t say they’re from a bunch of Slow Food people who are completely unrealistic. One of our writers was a speechwriter for George Bush. We have Johns Hopkins  Medical School writing about antibiotics. We have Meat & Poultry magazine writing about market forces. And of course we do have Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry and Eric Schlosser, a lot of great names. They’ve done some really  outstanding thinking about this issue and their writing is absolutely top notch.

I wanted to ask you about the essayists. CAFO obviously goes for a comprehensive approach, looking at the antibiotics, the inhumanity of it, the dangers. That was clear. You wanted to show all the problems of  a system that has wound up putting ammonia on hamburger to kill the germs. Was that the goal to be comprehensive?

I inherited this project from another group that didn’t finish the book. And what I found was that what I had inherited had been done a number of years ago. By the time the project was on my desk, there had been a number of new reports out. The UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) had put out “Livestock’s Long Shadow” and the Pew Environment Group put out “Putting Meat on the Table”. The Pew Commission on Industrial Agriculture spent many years studying this, and they had access to industry. They had some industry members on their board. And then the Union of Concerned Scientists came out with another really good book, CAFO’s Uncovered. There was suddenly this vast amount of data that was updated and was available to me, and it was updated and so the idea was that while we were putting all this effort into this book we wanted to make it a resource that’s going to be out for a long time and be useful  and have longevity.

So when Michael Moss (a reporter for the New York Times) of Dec. of 2009 won the Pulitzer for reporting about how the meat industry was using ammonia to disinfect hamburger meat. We even have footnotes to that article. We couldn’t get his piece in, but we did our best to acknowledge the fantastic reporting he was doing on that subject.

So all this material coming together makes me wonder, is this a fight against a Goliath – this massive industrial system that seems to control every part of production? Do you see a tipping point coming up? Do you see changes coming?

When you weigh all the evidence, you can’t think of anything bigger and more in need of reform in terms of the food system than this issue of CAFOs; this idea of animal concentration.

The three basic wands (against the problem) that come to mind are (first) antibiotics. If there were antibiotic reform — it’s perceived as the Achilles heel of this industry — the thought is, if you take away the antibiotics, then suddenly the concentration will have to be addressed. You just can’t keep that many animals in confinement, in those conditions, in those rapid weight gain, extreme waste-producing conditions, without drugs.  Or you have to really radically change your management system. The CAFOs are pretty much set up to just have these breeds that grow almost miraculously, and they’re not given a lot of oversight.

The next wand that certainly could be waved is if farm bill subsidies were radically oriented away from the huge amounts of grain, and most of it goes to feed cattle. And huge amounts of so-called conservation subsidies that go directly to help CAFO operators manage their waste.  There are billions of dollars a year, of taxpayers’ dollars that go into that, the CAFO industry.

And probably the biggest (wand) that’s going to drop or that’s going to be waved at some point is the cost of petroleum. When you look at the CAFO industry, and you look at confinement agriculture, from the production of grain to the rapid speed of packing this grain into animals that largely, by nature, don’t convert protein that way; and you have this massive refrigeration and transportation system, you can’t see this food production system any other way than we’re just packing animals full of fossil fuel, rather than sunlight.

Most ecosystems , most natural beings really revolve around cycles of sunshine and we’re completely skirting that right now by just pumping fossil fuels into the whole system.

However, when gas reaches $10 a gallon, I think CAFOs will disappear, or they’re going to be radically restructured.

Those are the three big pressure points.

And there are a lot of people around the country organizing this consciousness. The Humane Society has been very effective at it. People really don’t want animals to be treated poorly.

A happier chicken.

Do you think people don’t realize, or are afraid to look, because most people do eat meat?

Well, we had Prop. 2 in California, which was a hard fought ballot initiative in 2008, dealing with the welfare of laying hens in battery cages, and sows in gestation crates, who are basically straitjacketed their entire lives, they never get to move from their crate –they just get inseminated and have piglets – and then veal (male calf) crates.  So they took the most draconian technologies of the CAFOs and said we want to phase them out in California, and over 65 percent of the voters agreed with this.

So they voted for it. So there’s an overwhelming amount of people in my state, and it’s not unusual. States where this gets taken up and debated, they win. The voters vote for stricter animal welfare standards.

In California there is more voter influence with the ballot initiatives. And I do think many people remember the downer cows exposed by the Humane Society. Do you see some other possible turning points?

You have to have hope.  And certainly this industry has huge amounts of power, so you can never take anything for granted. But I also think, as I talk and get out in the world, you find more and more people dissatisfied with this idea. We’re told that this is inevitable, that we need cheap animal protein because we’re humans and we’ve been eating animals for 40 million years, it separates us from everybody else.

But I think people do want to pay the price for the right way of doing things.

We are told we have to do it this way if we want to eat cheap food. But what was the lesson of the egg recall? Lots of people went right out and paid more for eggs because they didn’t want to get poisoned.

There was  a rush on farm eggs at my farmers market.

So there’s more elasticity in the price of food than we’re told, right? And if the egg costs 10 cents more to have a better life for the chicken – I actually think it has to be a lot more to tell you the truth – people are willing to change their buying habits. They definitely are.

Another way is to eat less meat, and find other sources for meat. What do you think a family can do to bring change?

I’m a producer and so my choices are a little bit different. But the deepest level to go to is to try to raise some of your own food. And you do see this backyard urban hen laying movement where people are putting up tiny little shelters and raising some of their own food, particularly in suburbs, and they’re crossing this threshold and getting into food production themselves. Once you cross that line, there’s no turning back. Once you’ve been hooked on the joy of raising food and properly really caring for it, and benefiting from the taste, you break down the barriers and find out what it means to be a small producer and how much does it cost to grow healthier food.

If you can’t do that (grow your own) then the closer relationship you can establish with the person who grows your food, and the more that relationship gets nourished, then you’ll make better and better choices.

The real difficult thing I find is, how do we scale up the alternatives, the healthy production methods without watering them down, and being disingenuous  to the producer?

That’s where we are right now, if you look at CAFO and really study it, it doesn’t matter if you’re right or left, really liberal, religious, non-religious, whatever, you can’t help but carefully read the book and look at the pictures and go, ‘This is wrong’.

We have to do something different. And so then the debate begins.

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