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Old MacDonald’s Nightmare

Interview with David Kirby, author of ‘Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment’

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.

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.

Q. Dangerous?

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.

Q. What about farmers who confine animals in bad environments and who pollute?

A. Obviously, doing so is not their goal. Their goal is usually to stay on the family farm. Industrial farming or getting out of farming altogether is often a choice they are given. Farmers are responsible for their choices, but it’s not the farmer’s fault that he’s faced with this dilemma.

Q. Whose fault is it?

A. It’s caused by people who will drive across town to buy a box of the cheapest frozen meat they can find at a big box store. We’re all part of this system—people who demand the cheapest food prices in the world.

Q. Should CAFOs, or animal factories as you call them, be abolished?

A. I’m not actually advocating a specific course of action in the book, but I don’t think they’ll just disappear. Too much of our food comes from them. It’s ultimately the marketplace that’s going to decide.

Q. So consumers rather than government will choose how animals become food?

A. Right. Look at gasoline marketing. People will buy a certain brand because it makes their cars run better. We have motors, too. When I buy chicken, I’m willing to pay $6 for chicken that was raised well, without unnecessary drugs and additives, rather than $3 for chicken from an animal factory. It’s healthier, better fuel.

Q. What about older people on fixed incomes, or big families, or those who want to go on vacation rather than eat boutique chicken?

A. People should make their own choices. It’s your right and your privilege, and I’m not telling you what to eat. But what I think is going to happen regardless is that prices for industrially produced food will rise as the need to rein in these environmental and health problems becomes more apparent.

Q. Could prices for sustainably produced food fall with growing popularity?

A. I think so. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, the food co-ops, farmers markets and restaurants that serve locally grown food are packed. If that spreads, the market will drive increased production of these kinds of foods.

Q. What should someone who wants to kick the industrial ag habit do?

A. You should find small, independent community-based farmers in your area and support them. Take the kids to the farm once in a while so they can see where their food comes from. You can buy them a share in the farm—literally buy them a sustainably produced pig. They’ll learn respect for animals, the land, water and what they put in their bodies.

Chris Carroll is a writer from Maryland.