In the ten thousand or so years since the birth of agriculture, mankind has become adept at manipulating the food chain in such a way that today virtually every link in the chain leads to the human stomach. One of the tradeoffs in this achievement is that a staggering number of us are unacquainted with the origin of the food on our plates. But that is changing. Indeed, the question "Where does our food come from?" is behind the success of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2001), Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma(2006), and their follow-up documentary, Food, Inc. (2009), among other cultural artifacts.
Now journalist David Kirby has joined the fray with Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment.But where Schlosser and Pollan played up the animal welfare angle in their respective books, Kirby's bête noire is the destructive impact that factory farms have on the environment and public health. And while Animal Factory doesn't give short shrift to the idea that factory farms are essentially concentration camps for livestock, the book's primary message is less "save the animals" and more "save the humans."
The bulk of Kirby's hefty tome is devoted to the stories of three families who were unlucky enough to have enormous factory farms, each housing thousands of animals, built practically next door. In each case, the moms and dads profiled by Kirby never imagined themselves in the role of environmental activist — they are mainly older, small-town conservatives. But as Kirby explains, circumstances eventually forced them to take on the ag giants as if they were modern-day Davids confronting Goliath.
If you've been to a bookstore and browsed the farm-lit section, you already know that today's farms bear little resemblance to Old MacDonald's little spread. Dairy cows do not happily graze away their days in verdant meadows. Pigs do not loll in cool mud baths on warm, sunny days. Roosters don't cock-a-doodle-doo from the back porch. The reality, sadly, is more factory than farm. In fact, unless you're in the habit of buying certified organic, you can pretty much bet that every forkful of meat or swallow of milk that passes your lips can be traced back to an animal whose life has been spent crammed, sardine-style, against thousands of other animals in a dark, dank, feces-filled building. These unpleasant facilities are known as CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and they are the name of the game in today's ag business. As Kirby explains it, small traditional family farms first began to be squeezed out by much larger corporate operations that prized efficiency over compassion and sustainability in the middle of the twentieth century. In the CAFO system, rather than having, say, a hundred pigs on a farm, you could raise and feed five thousand — on just a few acres of land. And, in case you were wondering, five thousand pigs generate a whole lot of manure.
Manure, you see, is the malodorous villain of Kirby's book. Indeed, according to Kirby, a veritable storm of dung is being sprayed across our amber waves of grain and fruited plains. (And occasionally the neighbor's house as well.) And while the interwoven narratives at the heart of his book mostly revolve around North Carolina and Illinois hog farms, Maryland chicken farms, and Washington state dairy farms hundreds, all CAFOs wrestle with the same dilemma: too much manure.
You see, on a traditional farm with a reasonable number of livestock, manure is generally produced in manageable quantities that can be absorbed into the farm's surrounding cropland without problem. On a factory farm supporting thousands of animals, however, the surrounding crops quickly become oversaturated by untreated manure that's continually sprayed through a sprinkler system — sometimes to the point where crops become contaminated by deadly bacteria such as E. coli.Moreover, manure that isn't sprayed on crops is directed into massive, festering waste lagoons that fill quickly and can overflow. For anyone living in a town near a CAFO, the downside includes contaminated water supplies, putrid air, and serious health problems.
As each of the individuals profiled in Animal Factory watches as their families, neighbors, and homes become casualties of nearby CAFOs, they are left with little choice but to take action. North Carolinian Rick Dove, a retired Marine, is moved to act when he notices that his beloved Neuse River is turning every color of the rainbow and coughing up dead fish with alarming frequency. Washington state schoolteacher Helen Reddout begins her fight after her home becomes suffused with a fecal stench wafting over the countryside from a new dairy operation nearby. Karen Hudson worries something could go awry when her Illinois town gains its first large-scale hog factory and is proven correct when a waste lagoon ruptures and creates the worst toxic spill in the state's history. Kirby follows each of these individuals as they struggle against powerful agricultural tycoons and indifferent politicians (in some cases the politicians and tycoons are one and the same), and, with the help of neighborly alliances and community-based organizations, press to have regulations enacted that will prevent further damage to their homes, health, and livelihoods.
You could even say that Animal Factory is a sort of organizational life-cycle guide for would-be activists. Each story recounted by Kirby begins with an individual who, forced to take action, finds a group of like-minded individuals willing to form a coalition to fight the rampant pollution fouling their communities. Along the way, two factors emerge as potent forces in their efforts: the power of media and the power of advocacy. All of Kirby's citizen-activists hit a wall in their attempts to make their pleas heard by local authorities, but in every case that wall crumbles as soon as they persuade a local news outlet to tell their story. As Kirby says in an interview with the Humane Society, the gradual changes taking place in the agricultural industry indicate a "slow-burning consumer revolt," a revolt that is gaining strength as the public is increasingly informed about the facts behind industrial-scale food production. As the voices of these communities grow louder, they are able to use their influence to advocate for stronger government regulations. Indeed, reading Kirby's book makes it clear that the path to real change lies in advocacy, and that any organization seeking to create social change would be foolish not to make the most of their lobbying power.
Animal Factory is a gripping read, an extraordinary eye-opener in terms of exposing the reality of our modern food-production systems, and a wonderful illustration of the power of public protest and activism. What it doesn't do, however, is offer many answers about how small farmers can stay in business, what people in rural communities can do to protect themselves against the depredations of large-scale corporate farming and maintain their quality of life, and what is required to produce food that is both nutritious and inexpensive. For that, we'll have to wait for Kirby's next book.