Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) generate cheap meat and massive profits by cramming thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands or — with chickens — even millions, of animals into cramped, enclosed quarters.

Out of sight of the public, animals raised in CAFOs spend their days indoors, typically never getting to feel the sun on their backs or grass and soil beneath their feet.

By treating the animals as objects, the industrial farmers simply focus on fattening the animals up at the most rapid pace possible, often with the assistance of drugs and unnatural diets of genetically engineered (GE) corn and soy.

No attention is paid to the fact that the animals suffer immensely, both physically and psychologically — and it shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that the environmental ramifications of such a destructive system are also widely ignored.

The Price of Pork

According to the most recent census of agriculture data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. hog and pig industry had annual sales of $22.5 billion in 2012.

While some pig farms exist in virtually all U.S. states, the industry is heavily concentrated in a handful of states, namely Iowa, North Carolina, Minnesota and Illinois.1 

Further, while family and individually owned farms made up 83 percent of pig operations, they accounted for just 41 percent of sales. Corporations, which own just 8 percent of pig farms, accounted for 34 percent of sales.

In Illinois, for instance, pig CAFOs have exploded in number in recent years, producing cheap meat that comes at a high environmental and ethical price.

In the state, CAFOs with 5,000 or more pigs account for 88 percent of sales and have quickly outpaced smaller farms' market share.2 According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune:3

"The state Department of Agriculture, which is charged with promoting livestock production as well as regulating it, often brushed aside opposition from local officials to issue about 900 swine confinement permits in the last 20 years.

Long-standing community residents were left feeling their rights had been trampled and the laws stacked against them.

In a wide-ranging investigation that spanned dozens of Illinois counties and analyzed more than 20,000 pages of government documents, the Tribune also found that the growth of these confinements has created a persistent new environmental hazard." 

Environmental Hazards, Whistleblower Complaints Ignored

The Chicago Tribune revealed that nearly half a million fish from 67 miles of rivers were killed by pig waste that had entered local waterways over a 10-year period.

The consequences for this massive environmental destruction were insignificant; only small penalties were enforced against multimillion-dollar corporations, many of them repeat offenders.

Further, the investigation revealed that Illinois officials were not taking whistleblower allegations of animal cruelty seriously. According to the Chicago Tribune:4

"Inspectors dismissed one complaint, state files show, after simply telephoning executives to ask if it was true that their workers were beating pigs with metal bars.

Other states and local agencies have moved aggressively to address the problems caused by large hog confinements. Illinois has not, the Tribune found, even as consumers demand more humane treatment of livestock and stronger environmental protections."