November 6, 2014
We can all think of one right away: a bad neighbor. In Baltimore City, that bad neighbor leaves his smelly trashcan out front without a lid all the time so every time you open a window or a door, you are assaulted by the odor and numerous flies. She doesn’t pick up after her dog when it goes on the street or in her own backyard. He rents the house to one person but six people live there and have a constant stream of visitors. She double parks for hours, impeding the flow of traffic. He shares his bedbugs with you.
Now imagine that you live in a rural community in Maryland. Maybe it looks like that screen painting in Miss Mary’s window with a red-roofed cottage next to a stream. You can really enjoy the view and breathe in the fresh air. But wait, what’s that smell, hon? Oh, it’s your new neighbor: a CAFO.
CAFO stands for concentrated animal feeding operation. In the U.S., more than 50 percent of animals raised for food come from CAFOs. Instead of six people in the row home next to you, there can be 2,500 pigs in one enclosed building, and CAFOs often have more than one building. Rather than dog poop or a trashcan, your neighbor has a “lagoon,” which really is just an open-air cesspit where all the urine and feces is collected. Each pig produces three times the amount of waste as a human. That’s a lot of poop. The odor is intolerable, forcing you to always keep your windows closed and spend most of your time indoors. If you do venture outside, the flies are too numerous to count. You have trouble breathing. The tractor trailers delivering pigs and feed to and from the CAFO tear up and clog up your roads. (Nicole, 2014)
The CAFO shares bugs, too, except these are superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria pass from animal to animal in these close quarters. Each pig has less than 8 square feet of space inside these buildings and stands on concrete floors in urine and feces. The bacteria can contaminate meat when the animal is slaughtered (Waters, 2011). Workers are exposed and can share the bacteria with their families (Nadimpalli, 2014). Communities close to CAFOs are at increased risk of infections (Casey, 2013).
So why should you care about what happens in a rural community? Actually, the problem is closer than you think: in your glass, on your table, and in your doctor’s office. CAFO waste is frequently applied as fertilizer, which gives the antibiotic-resistant bacteria another opportunity to enter our water supplies and food system. You should have the right to safe water from source to tap and the right to safe food from farm to fork.
What about those bacteria? They are like bedbugs: difficult to eliminate. Doctors are having trouble treating infections because these bacteria are resistant to the antibiotics they usually use. Our standard antibiotics just don’t work on them.
But what can you do? Vote with your dollars. Be aware; spend with care. It sounds cheesy but what you buy tells the food producers what you want. You want safe food that is grown responsibly so it does not impact your quality of life, your environment, your food, your water, or your health.
Image: U.S. EPA, gestational sow barn, public domain.