Who should control CAFOs?

In the U.S., a concentrated animal feeding operation (or CAFO) is a livestock farm where animals are “confined on site for more than 45 days during the year.” What makes such operations “large scale” depends on the type and number of animals — “1000 head of beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2500 swine weighing more than 55 lbs, 125 thousand broiler chickens, or 82 thousand laying hens.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) recent Census of Agriculture (here), there were 93.6 million cattle and calves residing on nearly 883,000 ranch farms in 2017. Approximately 1.25% of those farms were “large scale,” controlling more than 38% of all cattle and calves (in 2012, 1.15% of cattle farms were large scale). In the case of hogs, more than 93% of the 72.4 million hogs raised on farms in 2017 had at least 2,000 animals; that is, 12.5% of the 66,000 hogs farms in the U.S. were large (compared to 12.2% in 2012).


CAFOs, especially large ones, are controversial for many reasons, but mostly because of the impact they have on the environment. These operations produce millions of tons of manure every year. Even when properly managed, the risks to the environment and public health are significant. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that “Manure and wastewater from AFOs have the potential to contribute pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus, organic matter, sediments, pathogens, hormones, and antibiotics to the environment.” Operators of CAFOs are required to follow a compendium of federal and state rules.

Since federal and state rules govern the operation of CAFOs, should local governments also have a regulatory say? Stated differently, should states prohibit local governments from regulating or controlling the placement and operation of CAFOs in or near their communities?

On May 2, 2019, the Missouri Senate “passed a bill to block local officials from regulating industrial farms more strictly than the state does.” The measure, Senate Bill 391, states that “county commissions and county health center boards shall not impose standards or requirements on an agricultural operation and its appurtenances that are inconsistent with or more stringent than any provisions of law, rules, or regulations relating to the Department of Health and Senior Services, environmental control, the Department of Natural Resources, air conservation, and water pollution.” The Missouri House will now weigh in on the measure, a vote that could come as early as May 17.

On the one hand, placing restrictions on local control of CAFOs provides a uniform policy to producers within the state and allows states to balance the benefits from the efficient production of beef and pork, as well as dairy, broilers and eggs, with the environmental, health and other costs. Estimating benefits and costs might also be easier at a macro than at a local level. On the other hand, the direct environmental impacts of CAFOs are almost always felt at the local level. It’s hard to ignore the complaints of neighbors who suffer because of the stench of a pig manure lagoon a mile down the road, unless you are a state legislator who doesn’t live near one.

Another way to think about this is as a battle between economic interests and quality of life. Are the economic benefits from having a large hog operation in the community worth the unpleasantness of living near one? Not surprisingly, states usually opt in favor large scale agriculture, especially if large agribusinesses have well-paid lobbyists.

The issue in Missouri is not new. A story in the Chicago Tribune in 2006 entitled “Hog Wars: Missourians Raise Stink Over Giant Operations” tells of how communities are being divided over the issue of proposed CAFOs. One state representative quoted says “It’s the new Civil War.” Local communities want to regulate, but “Agribusiness interests … are alarmed by this rural insurrection and have been pressuring the state legislature to outlaw such bans.” I guess it is finally coming to pass.

This tension between the interests of the many (via the State) and the concerns of the few  (via local communities) is as old as time. It also hearkens to the conflict between utilitarian and Kantian perspectives. A utilitarian position might favor the operation of CAFOs, especially those that are improving efficiency and are effective in controlling pollution, such as utilizing manure as an energy source. Videos explaining efficiency improvements in and other issues relating to pork production are here, and a National Geographic article on the topic of turning manure into energy is nicely titled: “Harnessing the Power of Poo: Pig Waste Becomes Electricity.” A Kantian position will often support the perspective of local communities. Local governments argue that because the operations are in their communities, then principles of autonomy and rights favor their being able to have some say in how they operate, or even if they should operate at all. After all, if states benefit from CAFOs, should they do so at the cost of local communities?

Reconciling utilitarian and Kantian dilemmas is not easy. But the problem with CAFOs is largely one of our making. We like meat. We like it cheap. And we eat lots of it. If we ate less meat then the economic justification for CAFOs might be weakened. That’s a tough call for someone looking forward to his next burger.