Animal Factory

Ignore him and maybe he’ll go away?

We hope not!

When David Kirby wrote “Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment,” we might have expected knee-jerk howls of protest from proponents of industrial agriculture. But supporters of the meat, milk, and egg factories he lambasted in the book apparently have chosen to stonewall instead.

“They won’t acknowledge me,” Kirby told a Davenport audience recently. “If they attack me, I’ll start selling books!”

But we simply can’t afford to ignore Kirby, his book, and his indictments of our industrial model of agriculture. He documents a series of problems with “animal factories,” ranging from the damage to the environment caused by fecal waste and toxic gases, to the disruption of rural communities, to the widespread use of antibiotics that may lead to the development of drug-resistant strains of bacteria. He said that U. S. animal factories produce 100 times as much waste as goes to human sewage plants. And more than half of all U. S. fish kills are attributed to livestock waste.

Kirby began his investigations of factory farms after a conversation with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. about the high incidence of cancer in Prairie Grove, Ark., where Tyson had a huge poultry confinement operation. Kirby learned that the chicken feed contained arsenic as a stimulant to speed the chickens’ growth. The resulting toxic fecal waste was spread near the town – including on three sides of the school.

That began a 20-state saga in which Kirby heard the stories of small farmers and rural residents whose lives had been disrupted by CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). He profiled three rural residents who became activists when confronted by the problems caused by hog confinements in North Carolina, and dairy operations in Washington and Illinois.

A resident of Brooklyn, N. Y., Kirby admitted that he had been “blissfully ignorant” of where his food came from until he began researching the book. “The first trip opened my eyes to what the industry looks like, smells like, and sounds like,” Kirby said. He said he will never forget the continual nighttime squealing of hogs crammed into a confinement building.

How can animals stay healthy when they are crowded into CAFOs, where they must breathe the air-borne toxins produced by their own waste, Kirby said? Our food supply is jeopardized, as illustrated by the recent recall of more than 500 million eggs due to suspected contamination by Salmonella, he noted.

“We would never allow an automobile factory or a toy factory to operate under those conditions,” Kirby declared. ”Where is the oversight?”

But even worse than what the factories do to animals is their impact on people, Kirby argues. Many rural families have been forced to move to avoid the odor of methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia emanating from the manure pits. Studies at the University of Iowa and elsewhere have linked the toxic gases to dramatic increases in the rate of asthma in children living or attending school nearby.

The routine use of antibiotics in animal feed – which producers claim is necessary to prevent disease from spreading in the confinements – poses a risk of breeding drug-resistant bacteria. Other researchers fear the effects on humans of growth hormones fed to confined livestock.

Kirby called CAFOs “technological marvels” that produce cheap food and corporate profits. But most people don’t realize that their “cheap” food comes with huge costs to the health of humans and the environment, he said.

Although Kirby begrudgingly concluded that “factory farms are here to stay,” many in the audience refused to make that concession. Nevertheless, we should at the very least take steps to try to reduce the impacts of the CAFOs on people and the environment, he said. A ban on the prophylactic use of antibiotics in feed would be a first step. Local control over the siting of CAFOs (an issue that has stalled in the Iowa Legislature, despite a campaign promise by Chet Culver) would allow people to protect their communities from the facilities, he added.

There also should be limits on the size of meat processing plants, Kirby continued. That could reduce the clustering of CAFOs that may move in to a small area to supply the thousands of animals required by the big processors. (Kirby’s visit to the Quad Cities was motivated in part by a proposal by Triumph Foods to build a huge pork plant in Illinois that could slaughter 16,000 hogs daily.)

More stringent rules also are needed to reduce water and air pollution from the livestock facilities, Kirby said. And taxpayers should not give subsidies to large, industrial operations to be able to comply with those regulations, he continued.

The nation’s agricultural policies should be changed to reduce the payments given to large grain farmers, Kirby added. The “animal factories” might not be profitable without the abundance of cheap grain resulting from those subsidies, he noted. Our agricultural programs often seem to benefit the larger, industrial operations, instead of aiding smaller, more sustainable farms, Kirby said.

Frederick Kirschenmann, president of Kirschenmann Family Farms, and Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, praised Kirby’s work.

“David Kirby’ s new book points to a deeper story than may be apparent to some,” Kirschenmann said. “It is easy to blame the farmer, or blame the industry for the unintended consequences of our food system. But there are deeper systemic issues which give rise to these problems that we now need to address. Our ‘fast, convenient, and cheap’ food system gave us benefits that many found praiseworthy.  But we failed to anticipate the unintended costs to health, to communities, and to the environment.  Perhaps it’s time to reinvent a food system that is resilient, affordable and health-promoting for both people and land.   Perhaps Kirby’s new book can serve as part of a wake-up call for us all to become food citizens to that end.”

Kirby’s trip to the Quad Cities was sponsored by Quad Cities Progressive Action for the Common Good, the Eagle View Group of the Sierra Club, Iowa Farmers Union, Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Kirby told the crowd of nearly 200 people that this was the largest group he has spoken to on the subject of CAFOs. And he urged the audience to keep pressing for animal factory reforms.

For more about “Animal Factory” and David Kirby, visit

For more on another CAFO problem, see a recent Des Moines Register op-ed by Bob Watson,

For a free download of “A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture,” by Francis Thicke, visit

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