Q. The word “farm” evokes images of red barns, sheep in the meadow, cows in the corn. Has agriculture changed that much?
A. Farms today often have very little in common with the images in our heads except that there are animals on site. What I’m describing are called CAFOs—concentrated animal feeding operations. The mere acronym is descriptive of the difference.
Q. How so?
A. Look at a traditional farm, which is very diversified. They have a limited number of animals rotated on pasture, and they feed on what grows there—a closed agronomic system. It’s sustainable.
Q. How is a CAFO different?
A. CAFOs are simply feeding operations designed to fatten livestock and get them to market as cheaply and quickly as possible. To a far greater extent than animals on a traditional farm, they are denied many natural behaviors that they’re genetically designed for—eating grass, enjoying sunlight, mating, rolling in the mud if they’re pigs.
Q. How common are these places?
A. The vast majority of pigs, chickens and dairy cows in the country are produced inside these animal factories.
Q. What’s life for animals like inside them?
A. They’re locked up, confined in overpopulated barns and denied access to fresh air and exercise. They don’t eat what they’re meant to eat. Instead we feed them grains. We put additives in like antibiotics, even heavy metals like arsenic, copper, zinc—even hormones and other pharmaceutical products that clearly were not nature’s intention.
Q. Doesn’t sound very appetizing.
A. It brings to mind the old saying: You are what you eat. But also, you are what your food eats.
Q. What’s the reason for the antibiotics and pharmaceuticals?
A. These are stressed-out animals packed tight, and the conditions can lead to compromised immune systems. Antibiotics are used as prophylaxis against disease, and they’re fed to animals to stimulate growth.
A. It’s known to be dangerous. The president has backed a bill in Congress to limit antibiotic use only to animals that are sick. The intent is not to prevent farmers from treating sick animals.
Q. What happens when antibiotics are abused?
A. It leads to antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections like MRSA, which now kills more Americans than AIDS. A significant percentage of American pig farmers and workers are infected with MRSA, and it doesn’t just affect the pig farms, because they take that into their homes and communities.
Q. What’s the scariest possibility you learned about in working on this book?
A. Pandemic influenza is the most worrisome, because it has the potential to kill many millions of people. Six of eight genetic components of the recent swine flu virus were traced to an outbreak in North Carolina in 1998. That virus spread to pig farms all over the country, and many years later, in Mexico, it jumped to humans.
Q. Why are pig farms such a risk?
A. Pigs and people can easily pass viruses back and forth. A virus gets into a crowded, dirty barn and gets passed pig to pig, with each transmission being a chance for virus mutation. People go inside and it gets passed to them. The real fear is that an avian virus gets in and mixes with the swine virus to create a super flu. In Iowa and North Carolina, you drive down the road and see pig factories next to poultry factories. They’re not hermetically sealed environments.
Q. Are farmers villains in your book?
A. No, many of the people I write about who are leading opposition to animal factories are farmers themselves.
Q. Do you think it’s wrong to eat animals?
A. I don’t tell people how to live, but I’m not a vegetarian. I’m pro-agriculture and pro-animal agriculture. I think farmers who produce food without unnecessarily harming animals and polluting the water and air are doing God’s work. They’re feeding us, and we should support them.