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David Kirby on Animal Factories

His book Animal Factory explores the impact on people

The Humane Society of the United States


This month, David Kirby's dramatic exposé, Animal Factory, is being released, documenting the devastating impact factory farms are having on human and animal health, the environment, local communities, and the economy.

American Library Association's Booklist magazine raves, "Thanks to Kirby's extraordinary journalism, we have the most relatable, irrefutable, and unforgettable testimony yet to the hazards of industrial animal farming."

We were honored to be able to interview the author, bestselling investigative journalist David Kirby:

1) Why did you get interested in this subject, and how long did you spend researching this book?

A few years back, Robert Kennedy, Jr., told me about the situation in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, where many people have contracted cancer, and many have died. The town is bordered by farmland on which arsenic-laced chicken manure was spread for many, many years. Whether there is a connection still must be proven. But arsenic is a known carcinogen.

I wanted to know why anyone would put arsenic in chicken feed in the first place (it's a growth promoter), and that is how I came to learn about industrial animal production and where most of our animal protein comes from. I spent more than two years travelling around the country and speaking to people on both sides of the issue in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, and California, as well as Washington D.C.

2) Animal Factory focuses on four regions: eastern North Carolina, eastern Maryland, Illinois, and the Yakima Valley of Washington state.  Why did you choose those regions to explore the environmental impact of factory farms?

I wanted to show the geographic diversity of this issue, and how it affects people in many regions of the country. I also wanted to highlight stories that reflect different types of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—swine, dairy, poultry—and the various sorts of problems they can create. Of course, the people I profile in these places all have gripping, compelling stories to tell—and most of them are farmers themselves, so it is impossible to call them anti-agriculture.

3) In the book, you focus less on the treatment of animals at factory farms, and more on the air, water, and ground pollution produced by such farms. Why?

First of all, people really do like to read about people. And as much as I care about the treatment and well-being of all animals, including livestock and poultry, I felt like the story of what is happening to real people in real communities was not getting the attention it deserved. The plight of industrial farm animals has been eloquently documented by others. The public is less informed about the impact that so much animal waste is having on humans, wildlife, and entire communities.

4) Given that factory farms now dominate the meat supply chain, how can we possibly go back to an America of small to midsize farms?

I don't think that is going to happen any time soon, although some people in my book predict that Mother Nature will have the last word on whether CAFOs will be with us in 20 years or not. And agribusiness routinely threatens to pull their operations offshore to other countries, if U.S. environmentalists, regulators, and litigators continue to push for more reforms in factory farming, though I don't think that is likely.

What I see happening is a slow-burn consumer revolt—one that is already under way and profiled in my book—in which big producers are obliged to make more and more concessions in terms of animal welfare, antibiotic use, environmental controls, fair labor practices, and so on. Public pressure comes in many forms: at the ballot box, the statehouse, the courthouse, the White House, and the supermarket. Consumers have more power than they realize. If they demand an even playing field that allows smaller, independent local producers to enter the food supply chain, it will happen, and those farms will flourish.

5) What five things should the federal government do, right now, to reduce the environmental impact of factory farms?   

In terms of the environment, the government should:

  • Require all CAFOs to get federal Clean Water Act pollution permits (contrary to what the name implies, the permits prohibit all discharges except during an extraordinary weather event) and thoroughly enforce their provisions through increased monitoring
  • Enact and enforce stricter limits to manure application rates on farmland around CAFOs
  • Enact and enforce air emission limits on CAFOs, to reduce odors and noxious gases
  • Phase out and eventually ban the use of liquefied manure systems, including waste lagoons and sprayfields, on large-scale animal operations
  • Limit or ban the use of certain feed additives that, when released with manure, can harm soil, water, natural habitats, wildlife, and human health. These include heavy metals such as copper, zinc, and arsenic, sub-therapeutic antibiotics, hormones, and other pharmaceutical products.

On the economic side, the federal and state governments should also:

  • Put limits on farm subsidies and other payments and credits made to industrial sized operations
  • Enact "packer bans" to prevent processing plants from owning the animals they slaughter
  • Pass local control ordinances in which counties have the right to accept or reject the building of new CAFOs within their jurisdiction

For more on this groundbreaking book, please visit animalfactorybook.com.

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