The size of CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories (EarthAware; $50) gives the illusion that it’s a coffeetable book, one that decorates a living room for guests to enjoy flipping through. Such books often contain pictures of babies dressed up as flowers or popular San Francisco destinations. Despite its oversized format and generous illustrations, CAFO is anything but a light conversation starter.
Edited by Daniel Imhoff, CAFO is a compilation of essays from 30 different authors, including Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan, that explore the conditions of “concentrated animal feeding operations.” Simply put, a CAFO is when “you concentrate as many animals as you can in the smallest amount of space, and you have breeds that are meant to gain weight as fast as possible,” according to Imhoff.
The essays are accompanied by large, graphic images that are difficult to look at. Photos of cows with enlarged udders, chickens with no room to move, pigs with torn-up snouts and fish swimming in their own blood are regularly placed throughout the book. Some images are disturbing enough to distract readers from the text, and others pull at the readers’ heartstrings, making them question what they just had for lunch. “As you put it together, it’s startling,” Imhoff says. “You can’t help but have an emotional reaction.”
Despite first reactions to this book, CAFO is not meant to convert readers to a vegetarian lifestyle. The goal of the essays, says Imhoff, who is an omnivore, is to inform diners about the increase in food produced in CAFOs. He assures readers that these essays don’t “spawn from half-baked vegan conspiracies.” It took him close to three years to assemble the book, which contains a wide range of voices, with essays from college professors to former President Bush’s speech writers to food journalists. “As the editor, I just tried to assemble the best voices and cover as many issue areas as the subject requires,” he explains.
What Imhoff finds most disturbing is that stories about CAFOs make newspaper headlines weekly, and there still isn’t much being done to improve the industry. For example, Imhoff refers to the salmonella egg recall that happened a month ago. The story, which made national headlines, “demonstrates everything that is wrong with this industry,” Imhoff says.
Imhoff refers to CAFO as the “evil twin” of a book titled Fatal Harvest, published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in 2002. Fatal Harvest is similar to CAFO, but only discusses row and tree crops, completely omitting the animal issue. “With CAFO, we wanted to pull back the covers and expose the hidden costs of this industry,” he explains. “It’s a really important thing for consumers to be informed about.”
An entire section is devoted to debunking beliefs about industrial food. This section is located at the front of the book because Imhoff believes “it’s important to address the myths about the industry before diving into the hard facts about it.” The most popular unsupported belief in this section is that CAFO-produced food is cheap and efficient. “That depends on the eyes of the accountant,” Imhoff says. For him, this has became increasingly important to discuss, because it’s affecting the health of thousands of Americans.
“The debate with this myth is this: people will say that this type of food production is inevitable. If we don’t produce food this way, we’ll have huge hunger problems.” Imhoff addresses the fact that we as a nation have nutritional challenges ahead of us and says that “while CAFOs may solve hunger problems, it doesn’t make the food any [more healthful.]” With meat consumption constantly on the rise, especially meat products produced in CAFOs, we are increasingly contributing to food-related diseases and health issues. “If you actually count the external cost from consuming this food, with all of its saturated fats and whatnot, it’s extremely expensive,” Imhoff says.
Imhoff and his family live in Healdsburg and own a small homestead farm in the Anderson Valley. He has raised food for his family for the past 15 years, beginning with chickens and proceeding to hogs. He admits small-farm ranching is expensive, but to him it’s worth the cost. “I try to share the cost with other people, for feed and other things.” While he acknowledges that it’s not possible for everyone to lead this lifestyle, Imhoff does recommend that consumers take time to find animal products that were raised in a similar manner.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked issues with industrial animal factories is the copious amount of waste they produce. The section titled “Deep Shit,” which addresses the manure that these animals produce, is possibly the most disturbing of them all. Since the goal of a CAFO is to cram as many animals into the smallest space possible, there is often more waste produced than the facility can hold. This overpopulation results in an excess of waste in the flood plains and water systems. The waste produced is very nutrient-rich and not organic, and it can’t be used for anything.
The overwhelming amount of manure heavily impacts the fish population. “Hundreds of thousands of fish every summer die in the locations around these CAFOs, and it’s one thing you don’t hear a lot about in the news,” Imhoff says, “so this raises the question, how do you keep the manure out?”
While CAFO unveils the ugly truth that is the animal-factory industry, it also provides readers with a sense of hope. “When you make an advocacy-oriented communications piece I think that it’s great to have a clear goal. Our goal was ‘let’s give people a behind-the-scenes look that most animal products are now produced in this manner, and let the debate begin,'” Imhoff explains.
Imhoff states that he wanted to provide readers with solutions to this ever-growing problem. “There are a lot of diverse voices in this book, but what is unifying is that no matter where they come from, they all come to the same conclusion. They all agree that this system is out of whack. We need to get back to healthy ways of life.”
Imhoff leads a discussion on ‘CAFO’ at Sonoma Country Day School on Thursday, Oct. 14, at 7pm. Joining him are Mendocino rancher Mac Magruder, UC Cooperative Extension adviser and Sonoma County Meat Buying Club organizer Stephanie Larson and chef Duskie Estes. At the reception following the discussion local farmers, ranchers and producers will sell their products. 4400 Day School Place, Santa Rosa. $10&–$15. 707.284.3200.