USDA Policy Changes Needed to Support Smart Pasture Operations

According to a Union of Concerned Scientists report, CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, misguided federal farm policies have encouraged the growth of massive CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) by shifting billions of dollars in environmental, health, and economic costs to taxpayers and communities. As a result, CAFOs now produce most of the nation's beef, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs, even though there are more sophisticated and efficient farms in operation.

Instead of favoring CAFOs, the report recommends that government policies provide incentives for modern production methods that benefit the environment, public health, and rural communities. The report also shows that several smart alternative production methods can offer meat and dairy at costs comparable to CAFO products.

Viable modern alternatives
Although there is evidence that confinement operations smaller than CAFOs can be cost-effective and produce ample animal products, studies also suggest that sophisticated alternative means of producing animal products hold even greater promise. For example, hog hoop barns, open-air structures with curved roofs, in which hogs are allowed to "nest" in straw bedding, are healthier for the animals and much smaller than CAFOs. They can produce comparable or even higher profits per unit at close to the same price. UCS analysis has also found benefits to human health and the environment from raising beef cattle on "smart pasture operations." These operations feed animals a grass diet, requiring less maintenance and energy than the feed crops (such as corn and soybeans) on which CAFOs rely. Smart pasture operations, hog hoop barns, and other alternative agriculture methods succeed by working with nature, rather than against it.

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture can help level the playing field for smart pasture operations, hoop barns, and other sustainable agricultural operations by embracing the following sweeping policy changes:
Enforcement of antitrust and anti-competitive laws to prevent huge meat and poultry processors from dominating the production industry and shutting out smaller producers.

Lax enforcement has enabled large processors to concentrate and leverage their vast market power over livestock producers, often in the form of production contracts and animal ownership. This can limit market access for independent smaller producers, since the large majority of livestock are either owned by processors or acquired under contract—and processors typically do not contract with smaller producers. Federal government watchdogs have stated that the agency responsible for ensuring that markets function properly for smaller producers is not up to the task.

Allocation of research dollars to methods of animal agriculture that benefit the environment, public health, and rural communities, especially smaller alternatives to CAFOs.

Additional research is needed for alternative agriculture, including optimizing pasture crops and livestock rotations for high productivity and the ability to make alternative feed and forage more efficient. There is also a need for continuing improvements in livestock breeds. Current livestock have been bred specifically for a lifetime spent in a CAFO environment. Alternative production methods will need animals that are more suited for the pasture, with traits like high productivity under differing environmental conditions and disease resistance.

Reduction of payments to CAFOs from agricultural conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Where direct government subsidies favor CAFOs over other ways of raising livestock, they may also discourage otherwise viable alternatives. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was originally intended to help small and medium-sized livestock farms address pollution issues and prevent environmental harm. CAFOs were explicitly forbidden from receiving this funding. In 2002, however, the program was radically changed to make CAFOs a major funding recipient, and prioritized problems that only CAFOs would have, such as waste storage and manure transportation. UCS has estimated that CAFOs have received $100 million in annual pollution prevention payments from EQIP in recent years. This program was meant to encourage good stewardship of environmental resources, not mitigate the avoidable problems inherent to CAFOs.

Updating of slaughterhouse regulations to afford smaller, alternative producers better access to markets.

Smaller meat producers have a difficult time getting their products slaughtered and to market due to the concentration of power in the processing industry. This limited access of small and medium-sized producers to slaughterhouses is exacerbated by USDA inspection requirements. With the exception of small chicken producers in many states that sell directly to consumers, health inspections are necessary for marketing, and federal inspections are required for sales across state lines. Access to regulator-approved facilities is therefore needed to ensure broad market access. In other words, problems gaining access to processors not only hinders producers' ability to slaughter their animals, but also may restrict their ability to market their products. The resulting bottleneck between producer and consumer can reduce the viability of smaller and alternative producers even when their products may be competitive based on production costs.

To read more about the ill-advised policies that created CAFOs, and policies that can replace them with more sustainable, environmentally friendly production methods, read CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations.

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