20 November 2008

More on CAFOs

BB asks:
I am doing research on the support of CAFO's by the federal government. I understand that there are direct subsidies given to concentrated farms (EQIP, etc.), but those subsidies seems minimal relative to the indirect grain subsidies that CAFO's receive. If Obama were to substantially decrease indirect subsidies to CAFOs, do you think that would send CAFO's packing, and create a transition to a mid-size or sustainable farming community in America?
I said:
I think that land use/water quality drives the CAFO phenomenon, i.e., if there was a limit on waste/wastewater generation then there would be fewer CAFOs. Obviously, this is a regulatory/property rights issue -- and I think that CAFOs exist mainly because there is a gap in the law that does not prevent their concentration.

More expensive food would not change the scale economies of CAFOs...
What do you all think?

Addendum: USEPA finalized a revised rule for protecting surface water quality by controlling discharges from CAFOs. [no mention of groundwater]


  1. One of the problems is that CAFOs don't internalize the cost of the water pollution they produce on the margin, right?
    State-level watershed pollution cap and trade could give CAFOs incentive to be less concentrated. Granted, the success of cap and trade is completely dependent on the details of implementation... but I like the idea.

  2. In my part of the Central Valley, it has not been the giant modern animal facilities that have been causing water pollution problems; it's the scroungy little Mom & Pop operators who can't begin to pay for the technology needed to behave responsibly. Perhaps out of pity, perhaps out of political necessity, regulators let these scofflaws operate with impunity for years. Market forces are relentlessly putting these folks out of business, as they should.
    It is easy to attack the big evil heartless corporate mega-operators, but if you examine the health of their animals, the actual (not drive-by expert) water and air pollution they generate, and the incidence of worker injury, picking the white hats and black hats here is a little more complicated.
    I'm kind of on the fence about EQUIP, which could be ended entirely without causing any great harm. However, in my limited experience, I have seen it used in several cases to pay for sound, effective conservation measures, not boodoggles or scams. Considering the potential for the latter, that's sort of surprising, but it seems that the folks in charge of the program are pretty dedicated public servants.

  3. So even if grain prices were to drastically increase, you think CAFOs would continue to use grain even though grass-grazing is a relatively plausible alternative? It seems like with slowing of the biofuels industry, agricultural subsidies could return to the normalcy of the late 90's where price supports for commodities will encourage massive overproduction and price suppression - making CAFOs even more profitable.

    From what I have read, the regulations that could be imposed on CAFOs are often not enforced because of lack of state resources, or because of the political power of the CAFO owners and operators. Do you think the burgeoning movement towards organics/small farms that Michael Pollan has written about could create a strong enough mandate to encourage regulation enforcement?

  4. @Blake: Right.

    @Philip: Right. Don't give waivers to small operations, esp. if they compose a large part of the total.

    @Anon: The trade-off between grain prices/CAFOs and feedlots is complicated, but "fattening" is an operation that requires huge net gains in calories, so CAFOs make more sense. (I'm not saying that's good -- just economics.)

    The connection between regulation and small farms is weak. If CAFOs lose customers who switch demand (SHIFT in demand), there's nothing that matters about regulation.

    Regulation can increase CAFO costs, leading to a reduction in QUANTITY demanded (and switch to other food), which is a different way for them to lose business.

  5. Be caeful, The national college policy debate topic deals with CAFos. The questions posed look like students are trying to manipulate you for an answer to support their position, so they can win a debate tournament.

  6. If they win based on an answer that I give and support, then they can buy me a beer :)

    (I have no authority, so my answers *must* be useful... :)


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