The average American family spends around 10 percent of its income on food—half of what’s typical in many industrialized countries. Why we shouldn’t necessarily celebrate this fact is the subject of Animal Factory, a new book on industrialized animal agriculture by science writer David Kirby.
First, a word of warning for the weak of stomach. What follows, and Kirby’s book in general, don’t make for the best lunchtime reading. Vast lagoons of pig and cow feces appear in the book’s prologue and stick around for the duration, almost becoming characters along the way.
Squeamishness aside, Animal Factory interweaves stories of three people fighting mega-scale farms—animal factories, as opponents call them. In New Bern, N.C., retired Marine Rick Dove fights the pig farms that discard waste into his local river. Karen Hudson, a mother in rural Illinois, organizes a grassroots group to fight big dairy farms whose wastes are devastating her hometown. And Helen Reddout, a farmer’s wife and grandmother, turns activist when her own water is tainted by cattle waste from massive dairy farms in Washington’s Yakima Valley. (Read an excerpt from Animal Factory.)
These protagonists mourn the decline of the idealized American farm as they battle the rise of the new version—dominated by corporations that control meat and dairy from insemination to the refrigerator case. As Kirby relates, farmers are reduced to hired hands on their own land—contract caretakers, often raising animals that are actually owned by major agribusiness firms. Everything bucolic about farming is relentlessly squeezed out, and all that stomach-churning is amplified as the corporations push to supply us with the cheapest possible food.
The result, according to Kirby, is that the environment is fouled, animals suffer and human health is endangered. In the long run, food produced in animal factories might not even be cheaper once the cost of remediating environmental problems and battling diseases is factored in.
Author David Kirby spoke recently with the AARP Bulletin about what can go wrong when we try to turn farms into factories.
Q. Wow, has any book ever been more full of crap—literally—than this one?
A. That’s the number one issue—too much manure to manage in one place at one time. If the operators of these factory farms had anticipated the revulsion at the sheer volume of animal waste and the odors and fly problems it creates, this book probably never would have been written.
Q. Granted that pig poop, for example, is nasty stuff, especially to city people, but is it really that big a deal?
A. It is if you live near it. Most people don’t understand the scale. Some factory farms have thousands of animals and produce waste like small cities. Cities have to treat human waste before discharging it. Animal waste, which can contain hundreds of times more pathogens than humans in the case of pigs, doesn’t require treatment.
Q. What’s the result?
A. Waterways are polluted, fish die, pathenogenic bacteria spread, and people get sick.