Feedlots have been the subject of environmental and neighbor wrath for decades, as they cast vast quantities of bacteria-infested manure and smelly animal waste into the surrounding land and streams.
They've been reviled, spit upon, spied upon and vilified in the occasional video by animal rights or environmental groups.
And now, they've been re-imagined . . . as art.
Those beautiful feedlots, it turns out, have been waiting for just the right treatment. You thought they were ugly, with downtrodden cows shuffling through the mud in a vast grass-less landscape of brown. But to Belgian-French-British art photographer Miska Henner, they have an abstract beauty when examined from far above. From that vantage, these operations present an interesting juxtaposition of carefully constructed geometric shapes adjacent to wild swirls of brilliant colors, the latter being the pollution that undulates outward from the animal pens, staining the landscape red, green, lime and sienna.
You can see in Henner's photographs, taken from Google images far overhead, that the little black and white dots are the cattle. They are clustered within rectangular spaces composing the grid of pens. This is where the animals are fattened up for slaughter, and where the manure begins its outflow.
Henner's work is thought-provoking (and available for sale), and prompted us to look up some information on America's controversial and proliferating CAFOs. We might also note that Henner's large scale exhibition pieces, which have been shown in New York, London and Barcelona, arrive on the art scene just as several states have passed "livestock gag" laws to shield industrial farms from the photographers and journalists that periodically expose the dark, dirty and crowded conditions to which chickens, hogs and cattle are subjected.
Here are a few facts, courtesy of the EPA and environmental groups:
- There are 450,000 animal feeding operations in the US, generating 13 times more manure than human waste. (That includes CAFOs and AFOs, the former being “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” generally defined as more tightly packed facilities.)
- This waste pollutes 25,000 miles of US rivers and streams and more than 269,000 lakes. The consensus is that's because state agencies are spotty in how well they enforce the Clean Water Act. The debate is over whether these agencies need to enforce the federal laws at all.
- Livestock pollution comes from many sources, which are broken down in this government chart. Be careful drawing conclusions because the "feeding operations" are sprinkled across several categories. You'd have to add them all up to see the total pollution from CAFOs and/or AFOs.
After a GAO report that found the EPA didn't even know the location of most feedlots and therefore could not regulate them, environmentalists pushed for the EPA to build a database. The EPA proposed doing that in 2011, but the plan was withdrawn in the face industry push back. Livestock operators argued that releasing information about CAFO locations raised security issues for the farms because environmentalists would know their location.
EPA eventually assembled a patchy national database of CAFOs from state data and released it to environmental groups that asked. Livestock industry groups were furious that the information had been made public and several Republican senators got involved. The opposition contended that revealing the locations of CAFOs presented a security threat, even though, as an Environmental Working Group blogger pointed out, the CAFOs could be found on Google maps.
Environmentalists argued that the industry wanted to shroud itself, to hide the magnitude of its environmental and animal treatment transgressions from the public.
In 2013, the Minnesota Farm Bureau sued the EPA to try to stop any new releases of the names and home addresses of CAFO operators.
That suit continues. But in 2014, the EPA completed a review of its regulations for CAFOs, concluding that they continue to need regulation, and therefore the agency needs to maintain information on where CAFOs are located in the US. That was tantamount to saying that the EPA would continue to hold and make public information on CAFOs.
One of the finer points at dispute legally is whether the EPA has the right to regulate CAFOs that do not "intend" to discharge pollutants. That's because wording in the Clean Water Act seems to limit the agency to regulating intentional discharges; leaving CAFOs that spread manure on fields or accidentally discharge animal waste to non-regulated status.
Environmental groups argue that regulation should be much tighter, and more comprehensive. They've recently gained an ally of sorts in the Centers for Disease Control, which last year conceded that industrial farms are a source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a growing public health threat that the CDC says claims 22,000 US lives every year. Antibiotic resistance is cultivated in livestock animals, its believed, because they’re fed lose doses of antibiotics in their feed to promote fast growth.
Environmental and public health groups blame livestock CAFOs for the rise of the “superbugs” that don’t respond to antibiotics, and also for inhumane and unsanitary conditions that cause multiple health and environmental problems.
"More than 60 percent of CAFOs remain unregulated, more than any other point source in the country owing to the political pressure exerted by the agriculture lobby," said Scott Edwards, co-director of Food and Water Watch Justice in June.
Back in 2008, when the GAO report called for better oversight of CAFOS. it reported that the number of CAFOs was growing rapidly and they were becoming denser as more animals were crowded into small spaces.
Large operations are producing "more than 1.6 million tons of manure a year," much of which was not recyclable as fertilizer, the GAO noted, recommending several actions to increase regulation.
"Some large farms that raise animals can generate more raw waste than the populations of some U.S. cities produce annually," the GAO warned. "In addition, according to some agricultural experts, the clustering of large operations in certain geographic areas may result in large amounts of manure that cannot be effectively used as fertilizer on adjacent cropland and could increase the potential of pollutants reaching nearby waters and degrading water quality."