Environmental Terminology 101 – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)


The Environmental Protection Agency defines CAFOs as:

Livestock operations where the animals are confined for at least 45 days in a 12-month period and don’t have access to grass or other vegetation during the normal growing season. 

Corporate livestock facilities (hog and poultry), known as concentrated animal feeding operations (or CAFOs), can threaten the health of communities and pollute our air and water. Manure from CAFOs contains more than 150 pathogens that have the potential to contaminate water supplies, while fumes and particulate matter elevate rates of asthma, lung disease, and bronchitis among farm workers and people living nearby. Nitrates from animal manure poison drinking water sources and contribute to epic dead zones in sensitive aquatic habitats.

CAFOs are theoretically regulated by the EPA, under the Clean Water Act. However, a decade of NRDC research reveals that the EPA has left these health threats largely unmonitored. In fact, the EPA lacks basic information about most CAFOs, including their location, how many animals they confine, how much waste they produce, and how they dispose of that waste. The NRDC is encouraging states to step into the federal gap, using an NRDC designed permit to monitor and regulate CAFOs that endanger the health of their citizens and environment.

BARON, V., (2016) National Policy Director & Senior Attorney, Safe Water Initiative, Environmental Health. National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

CAFOs and Environmental Justice: The Case of North Carolina

On the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina, families in certain rural communities daily must deal with the piercing, acrid odor of hog manure—reminiscent of rotten eggs and ammonia—wafting from nearby industrial hog farms. On bad days, the odor invades homes, and people are often forced to cover their mouths and noses when stepping outside. Sometimes, residents say, a fine mist of manure sprinkles nearby homes, cars, and even laundry left on the line to dry.

Today’s industrial-scale farms—called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—house thousands of animals whose waste is periodically applied to “spray fields” of Bermuda grass or feed crops., The waste can contain pathogens, heavy metals, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria,, and the spray can reach nearby homes and drinking water sources. The odor plume, which often pervades nearby communities, contains respiratory and eye irritants including hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.,, A growing body of research suggests these emissions may contribute not only to mucosal irritation and respiratory ailments in nearby residents but also decreased quality of life, mental stress,, and elevated blood pressure.

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The home of a minority family in Kenansville, North Carolina, situated next to a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO. Dust, odors, and manure from CAFOs can reach nearby residents’ homes, including their laundry.  ©2013 Donn Young Photography

Although the Midwest is the traditional home for hogs, with Iowa still the top-producing state, North Carolina went from fifteenth to second in hog production between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s.This explosive growth resulted in thousands of CAFOs located in the eastern half of the state—squarely in the so-called Black Belt, a crescent-shaped band throughout the South where slaves worked on plantations., After emancipation many freed slaves continued to work as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. A century later, black residents of this region still experience high rates of poverty, poor health care, low educational attainment, unemployment, and substandard housing.,

The clustering of North Carolina’s hog CAFOs in low-income, minority communities—and the health impacts that accompany them—has raised concerns of environmental injustice and environmental racism. As one pair of investigators explained, “[P]eople of color and the poor living in rural communities lacking the political capacity to resist are said to shoulder the adverse socio-economic, environmental, or health related effects of swine waste externalities without sharing in the economic benefits brought by industrialized pork production.” Although North Carolina is not the only area with environmental justice concerns vis-à-vis CAFOs, it has become one of the best studied.

NICOLE, W. (2013) Environmental Health Perspectives

 2013 Jun; 121(6): a182–a189.
Published online 2013 Jun 1. doi: 10.1289/ehp.121-a182

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