Why CAFOs?

This section outlines what CAFOs are, why they are used today, and why we chose to focus our research on improving waste management in CAFOs.


What is a CAFO?

The term "CAFO" is a legal term of art referring to a "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation."  CAFOs are highly mechanized single-animal operations that raise large volumes of animals in confined quarters, where all inputs such as water, grain-based feed and antibiotics are closely monitored in order to spur rapid growth.  Although the name may be slightly different based on the country or region, whether it is known as a CAFO, a feedlot, or simply industrialized agriculture, the method remains essentially the same.


Why are CAFOs used?

The Earth's human population is approximately 7.5 billion. As standards of living improve in the developing world and dietary choices change, the demand for meat continues to grow. Producers have adapted to keep up with this increased demand. In order to maximize efficiency and productivity, livestock farmers and vertically-integrated corporations have implemented the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) model worldwide.

Many meat industry advocates point to the CAFO model as a hallmark of efficiency and a necessary approach to feeding our growing population. The CAFO method of production has dramatically reduced the overall time from the feedlot to the slaughterhouse, allowing greater herd turnover and higher profits for farmers and meat companies.

Despite its gains in efficiency from confinement and concentration of animals, the CAFO model of livestock production poses daunting waste management challenges and severely threatens the quality of our environment and public health. Numerous studies have documented adverse environmental and public health impacts for communities living in close proximity to CAFOs, ranging from greenhouse gas emissions, noxious odors, air pollution, ground and surface water contamination, and a host of respiratory diseases.

CAFOs can be found all over the United States, but are more highly concentrated in rural, agricultural areas, especially in the Midwest and Southeast.  Unfortunately, this concentration only further compounds the environmental or health impacts associated with living near CAFOs.

Density map of CAFOs, with white circles indicating meat processing plants.  Source :  Food & Water Watch analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture data

Density map of CAFOs, with white circles indicating meat processing plants. Source: Food & Water Watch analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture data

why study cafos?

As researchers based in North Carolina, we can see firsthand the impact of CAFOs in our own state.  North Carolina is home to Smithfield Foods, one of the world's largest pork producers, with production concentrated in the eastern part of the state.  Swine CAFOs in North Carolina are often located in communities with high poverty rates and high percentages of minority groups, and these vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by the environmental impacts of CAFOs.

Moreover, North Carolina's CAFOs and wastewater lagoons are located in low-lying coastal plains, which makes them particularly susceptible to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes.  In the past twenty years, two major hurricanes, Hurricane Floyd (1999) and Hurricane Matthew (2016) have struck the North Carolina coast.  Heavy rainfall from the hurricanes can cause lagoons to overflow, releasing untreated hog waste into the environment.

We believe that satisfying global demand for meat products should not come at the expense of vulnerable communities and environmental sustainability. Therefore, researchers, industry, and advocates need to collaborate to identify and implement novel waste management strategies that promote holistic land stewardship, protect public health, improve animal welfare, while ensuring that farmers have the resources they need to feed our growing population.