NYU Panel Weighs In On Factory Farming

Discussions about CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) almost always make the same key points: the animals in CAFOs are abused as a result of unsanitary conditions, the high rate of antibiotic use could lead to potentially dangerous superbugs (80% of antibiotics in the U.S. go to livestock), CAFOs are terrible for the environment, and CAFOs contribute to the opaqueness of the industrial food system.

Last night's panel at New York University on the environmental implications of factory farming was no different. The panelists, including food writer Mark Bittman, John Lovorn from the Humane Society, Jen Sorenson from the National Resources Defense Council and Kevin Fulton from Fulton Farms in Nebraska, covered the typical talking points about the ills of CAFOs without going into a great deal of specificity about how to remedy the flaws of the current food system. Despite a missed opportunity to delve deeper into activism at the local and national level, the panelists had forceful points to make about the negative impact of industrial farming.

Bittman countered the traditional argument for CAFOs, which reasons that CAFOs are beneficial because they produce large amounts of cheap meat, by noting that this "inexpensive" meat comes at a very high environmental and health cost. "It's estimated that a 99 cent hamburger actually costs between $5 and $200 depending on what externalities you factor in," said Bittman.

In regard to livestock antibiotic use leading to superbugs, Lovorn cautioned, "If you're not scared enough, go home and Google MRSA. You'll never travel on an airplane again." MRSA is a potentially deadly strain of staph bacteria that can spread through human contact, and it kills more Americans a year than AIDS.

Fulton, an industrial turned organic farmer, grimly noted that "animals in CAFOs have one good day in their life and that's when the misery ends."

In an assessment of the current state of farming, Bittman went so far as to say that the U.S. had gone from "world leaders [in farming] to a joke." Other panelists demurred, saying that for better or worse (but most likely worse) many developing countries are still looking to follow the U.S.'s example.

Sound like the situation is hopeless? The panelists did point to the remarkable influence consumer choice can have on the industrial food industry. And if that's not enough, you can always move to Europe, where the EU banned the use of antibiotics for livestock growth promotion in 2006.