/> a mother's heart » Blog Archive » do you know what a CAFO is?

I’ve decided to keep this week focused on food and where it comes from, which encompasses a few different posts that I’ve meant to put up for quite a while.  Thanks for hanging out with me while I ponder this stuff!

Unless you are a farmer or an avid natural-foodie, I don’t expect that  you might know what a CAFO is.  CAFO = Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operation.  It’s regularly used in factory-farming and as a place where beef is sent to “fatten up” on corn and grains before slaughtering.  CAFOs are an outgrowth of mass-producing food, but they also became a bit more up-front-and-personal for my family this summer.

We drove cross-country in three days to arrive in Phoenix, chasing our moving truck along the back roads of the country.  We drove through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and finally, Arizona.  We stayed on the major interstates most of the way, but at one point, we were on State Route 54, out of Wichita, and took it all the way to I-40 in New Mexico.  It was grueling driving, but I’d never seen this part of the country before and I enjoyed the view.

We saw cattle grazing on the hills in Kansas (the Kansas Turnpike is amazingly NOT flat!) – it seemed like every hill had hundreds of cattle on it.  I was delighted, knowing that pasturing beef is the best and healthiest way for the cow, but also that it produces that healthiest meat for us as consumers.  It takes a longer timeframe to bring a cow to butchering-weight with grass-feeding alone, but the benefits are huge and worthwhile, to my mind.  Seeing all those cattle also reminded me of a verse from Psalms 50 where it says that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (v. 10).   Anyhow….

On our third day of driving, as we were navigating the tail end of SR54 through the “stovepipe” of Texas, we came upon an awful smell.  As in, “Holy CRAP!  That is the worst thing I’ve ever smelled!” We looked around for the source of the offending odor (and remembering two things:  we were travelling at 55mph and had the air conditioner on) and saw several … CAFOs.  Places where the cows were packed in so tightly that the pictures Mark took with my phone’s camera (I was driving) show a huge wall of cowhides.  There were all over that area of Texas.

As we were driving along, Mark asked why it smelled so awful.  The only response I had was that the cows were eating what they weren’t designed to eat (cows are ruminants, designed to eat grasses, and to use their rumens to digest the grass.  They were never designed to eat grain and/or corn.).  When animals eat what they’re not designed to eat, their waste product isn’t what it was designed to be and typically smells really bad.  When you add in to that the fact that cows in CAFOs tend to get ill when eating things they’re not designed to eat and kept in super-close quarters, they’re also medicated by the people who run the Operation – with high-powered antibiotics.  And as any parent can tell you, a child on antibiotics smells differently and eliminates differently than when healthy.  The same goes for animals.

So when we smelled that awful odor, we were smelling what cows, kept in unnatural conditions with little sanitation and many medications smell like.  In other words, it was “normal” for a CAFO.

It is not, however, normal for a cow and it completely turned our stomachs.

Big Agriculture claims that it cannot feed the world’s hungry without using CAFOs and other industrial farming techniques.  And while I can appreciate the claim, I don’t completely agree.  If you go in to any supermarket and ask to speak with the people who work in the meat department, you’ll discover that there is an enormous amount of meat that goes to waste – things that aren’t sold before their spoilage-date.  We’re not feeding “the world’s hungry,” we’re feeding refrigerated grocery store shelves and producing far more than we can purchase or consume.

So what do we do?  Mark & I choose grass-fed beef as much as possible.  We find a higher pricetag on this kind of meat, but we eat less of it in response to the higher pricetag.  We supplement our meat-consumption with legumes and vegetables and find ourselves completely content on less food than we’ve ever been before.  I find the CAFO situation one of moral choice:  if I know it isn’t natural or kind to the animal which will give its life for my meal(s), as a higher-being, I believe I have a moral obligation to consider the life of the animal.  The health considerations of grass-fed beef (the high levels of CLA, high mineral and vitamin content, etc.) is also enough to make me want to avoid the inferior meat as much as possible.

But what do you do if grass-fed meat is beyond your ability at the moment?  Do the best you can with what you have.  Make the wisest choices you have with the funding available to you, and if the moral part of thinking about CAFOs bothers you, find a way to work with a pasturing-farmer who will trade work for meat, or eschew meat as much as possible until your situation changes.  The more of us who buy CAFO-produced meat, the more cows will continue to be confined to CAFOs to “meet demand.”  If we reduce the demand, we can reduce the number of these operations.

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  • http://beaelliott.blogspot.com/ Bea Elliott

    Hello – I can’t imagine how awful the smell of tons of manure must be. It’s really hard to figure how it all got this out of hand with “cafos”, “feed-lots”, “factory farms” and animal agriculture. I suppose most people have the desire to even ask about “livestock” before they can begin to understand the issues…

    I think it’s great advice to encourage people to seek nourishment from healthy legumes and other plant based foods. Who knows? If they incorporate it into their normal diet… They may eventually see that “meat” isn’t even necessary at all! :)

    But just a note… Since you brought up “moral responsibilities” to animals. Might I suggest that you refrain from calling “cows” – “beef”?
    “…a place where beef is sent to “fatten up” on corn and grains before slaughtering.”

    These cows weren’t “born” as anything but innocent beings… Just like any other animal. It might be more respectful if we all recognize the life first… before we term them as “food”. Who knows here too? Maybe even this shift might open a world of further understanding and compassion? 😉

  • http://www.mamasheartblog.com sue

    Hi Bea,

    Thanks for reading & responding! I think that is an interesting point about calling cows “beef.” I hear it said even in the sustainable agriculture corners in which I spend time, so I’m guessing it has more to do with not saying, “We’re going to go kill Bessie today…” and depersonalizing any attachment to live animals.

    But I like the idea of switching consciousness by switching language – I’m going to make a point to do that from now on. I’m not ashamed to teach our son where his food comes from, and so sterilizing the language shouldn’t be an issue, either.

    Thanks for the thoughts! :)