One, if not the MOST detrimental contributor to global warming.
By: Richard Xu
Chickens are forced to live on top of each other in dirty conditions for their entire lives. Image Source
Have you ever wondered whether the meat you consume has been humanely sourced? Sadly, there is a good chance that it came from an animal raised in a CAFO, a confinement camp for animals. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, are facilities that produce meat for consumer-production at an industrial factory pace. Not only do CAFOs keep animals in horrible conditions that could lead to human health code violations, but they are also the largest contributor to environmental pollution at the global scale.
According to the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, CAFOs are defined as any animal feeding operation where:
Animals are kept and fed for 45 days or more in a 12-month period, and
Crops or vegetation are not sustained during the growing season over any portion of the facility.
From there, they are sorted into categories dependent on the amount of animals and method of wastewater discharging.
At these facilities, animals are subjected to poor conditions such as limited space, poor nutrition, and lack of movement. These torturous conditions cause the confined animals to exhibit stress-induced behaviors. For example, pigs will start chewing their own tails—leading to CAFO owners to cut off pig tails in a process known as “docking”—while chickens begin to pluck their own and others feathers—resulting in harmful beak trimming, as a preventative measure. Not only do these conditions violate animal rights; they also increase human susceptibility to disease.
Because livestock are tightly packed in small quarters in order to maximize the amount of meat production, infections and diseases resulting from stress-induced wounds have a high potential to run rampant among them. To prevent this, CAFO owners will utilize antibiotics en masse. However, the more that antibiotics are broadly used and abused, the more likely it is for the infectious pathogens to develop resistance to treatments, which would eventually become a contamination risk for humans as well.
Another harmful aspect of these CAFO facilities is their method of waste disposal. As of 2012, Large CAFOs generated 404 million tons of manure — that is, over 20 times the amount of fecal wet mass produced by all human beings in the United States. Much of this waste is left to decompose in an open lagoon (see photo below) which will then be used as a crop fertilizer. There’s a high risk of it over fertilizing the environment plus its runoff can end up contaminating storm and groundwater sources. Additionally, lagoon failure or extreme weather can cause seepage of this waste into the surrounding area. If you were to unknowingly drink this polluted water, it could have moderate to severe effects on your health.
Aerial views of CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) farms in North Carolina, USA.
Finally, there is the big bad of the sheer, massive quantity of methane gas due to CAFO operations. Due to the open lagoons stated previously, methane gas among other pathogens are released into the air during the decomposition process. However, methane is not exclusively produced by decomposing animal waste, but is also produced and released through the animal digestive processes. In fact, ruminant animals such as cattle have a special 4-chambered stomach digestive system that allows them to eat and process foods like grass and uncooked grains, unlike humans. This food within their stomachs undergoes the process of enteric fermentation where food is partially broken down by microbes and bacteria then left to ferment—this produces methane. Every time cattle burp or fart, this methane is released into the environment.
So why does this all matter? In total, CAFOs have been responsible for about one-third of the USA’s greenhouse gas production. This methane produced by decomposition and digestive processes stays in our atmosphere and traps the sun’s heat for years, accelerating global warming with a methane Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 27-30 times as compared to CO2 over 100 years.
You might be wondering as to why the government knows about this yet hasn't taken any corrective actions? The issue is that these CAFO facilities are allowed, by law, to monitor themselves. This obviously leads to the perverse incentive of NOT disclosing accurate information. In order to make changes to CAFOs for their treatment of animals and pollution to their environment, there needs to be modifications to current legislations and policies. For one, take away the CAFOs’ ability to monitor themselves then install a regulatory, data-based monitoring protocol to keep them accountable.
At Nikira Labs, we have developed a proactive approach to monitor methane emissions in real-time. Our methane gas analyzer continuously measures the ambient air, in-situ, at the fenceline of any methane-producing facility with 24/7 real-time data insight. With the Nikira Labs technology, communities and companies can be continuously reassured that methane emissions are continuously measured to provide a data-based inventory for this potent and harmful greenhouse gas. This way, regulators can accurately attribute emissions to their appropriate sources and quantify the efficacy of corrective measures once they are implemented.