Expert Panel Sheds Light on Harsh Economic, Social Impacts to Rural Communities from Industrial Animal Agriculture

Contact: Justin Kenney, 215.575.4816, Ralph Loglisci, 202.223.2996

Washington, DC - 03/13/2008 - The large-scale industrial animal agriculture facilities that have replaced much of America’s traditional family farms have had damaging effects on the physical, environmental and socioeconomic well-being of rural communities, a panel of experts today told Congress.

Members of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) said the industrialization of animal agriculture over the past four decades has transformed the face of rural America.  The diversified, independent farms that once produced a variety of crops and a few animals have been largely replaced by a model of large-scale industrial farm animal production (IFAP) that aims to grow more in less space, use cost efficient feed, and replace labor with technology to the extent possible.  Using “economies of scale” as the operating principle, large, corporate IFAP facilities have been able to produce massive quantities of food products at seemingly lower costs than smaller, independent farms.

Panelists explained that as industrial scale farms have grown bigger and more concentrated, rural communities have often experienced lower family income, higher poverty rates, reduced housing quality and low wages for farm workers.  They noted that many communities dominated by IFAP facilities also display higher rates of poverty, psychological stress and social rifts than those where local, independently owned farms still play a large role.

One problem is that the IFAP system has taken much of the control farmers once had over agricultural management.  Farmers operate under contract to corporations that provide housing and facilities to grow the animals from birth to the time they go to the slaughterhouse. The grower does not own the animals, and frequently does not grow crops to feed the animals. The integrator controls all phases of production, including what and when the animals are fed.  Farmers remain responsible for managing the massive amounts of animal waste produced in IFAP facilities, as well as for greater costs associated with possible pollution, yet little influence over market prices for animal products.

Moreover, concentrated corporate ownership of facilities usually means fewer dollars reinvested in local communities.  Where the farm is owned and controlled locally, farm supplies and services tend to be bought locally, supporting a variety of local businesses (known as the economic “multiplier” effect).  In contrast, IFAP facilities under corporate contracts purchase feed, supplies and services to suppliers based solely on where they can find them cheapest, which often means outside of the local communities.  IFAP facilities often rely more heavily on low-wage labor including migrant or itinerant workers, depriving local residents of stable, well-paying jobs.

Industrial farm animal facilities can significantly diminish “quality of life” for neighboring rural communities.  Neighboring communities are subject to air emissions and other pollution that may harm certain segments of the population. Those most vulnerable – children, the elderly, individuals with chronic or acute pulmonary or heart disorders – are at particular risk.  Additionally, IFAP facilities often produce unpleasant smells.  This is highly disruptive to communities where lives are rooted in enjoying the outdoors.

Such impacts have caused deep tears in the social fabric of rural communities.  IFAP facilities generally attract controversy and the rifts that develop among community members can be deep and long-standing. Such controversy, cast in stark terms of property rights, pits neighbor against neighbor and threatens core rural values of honesty, respect, and reciprocity.

“On-farm economic efficiencies are achieved by economies of scale, but only up to a point,” said Commissioner Frederick Kirschenmann, PhD of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.  “The social and economic problems borne by surrounding rural communities reveal the hidden costs that can come with IFAP operations.”

Kirschenmann says one crucial flaw with the traditional IFAP system is the assumption of unlimited natural resources and sinks for production and disposal. He also cited one study demonstrating that efficiencies of scale on Iowa hog farms reach their peak at approximately 1200 market hogs per year.

The Pew Commission was convened in 2005 to study the impacts of dramatic changes in animal agriculture in America over the past 40 years.  Today’s event was part of a series of Capitol Hill issue briefings on these risks and challenges, and will culminate in the public release on April 29 of a set of recommendations to address them. The PCIFAP’s  two-year study encompassed site visits to production facilities across the country, consultation with industry stakeholders, public health, medical, and agriculture experts, public meetings, and peer-reviewed technical reports.

For more information visit the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production Web site.

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