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Factory farming’s toll

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Large factory farms have all but squeezed out America's small, family farms for a host of economic reasons. But industrial farms may exact a different type of cost, according to a new report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP).

The industry-like facilities where livestock are raised in close quarters "often pose unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the animals themselves" while shifting rural America's economic power from farmers to livestock processors, the report said. The commission said there is an increasing urgency to chart a new course.

Policymakers ignore issues posed by factory farms — environmental, economic and animal welfare — at their own peril. The health of the industry, consumers and livestock will depend on public policies that address food safety, disease monitoring, waste management and animal welfare.

For instance, the massive amount of animal waste produced by factory farms is a significant environmental and health concern. Each year, animals that live in these facilities produce three times as much manure as every human in the United States, the report said. Unlike human waste, it is spread on the ground untreated, which can contaminate groundwater, waterways, lakes, soil and the air.

The report also raises concerns about animal welfare. Living in close quarters can obviously contribute to stress and the spread of disease. But it also can restrict the movement and natural behaviors of animals such as rooting in pigs.

Most people in agriculture — and the authors of the Pew Commission report — acknowledge that it is unlikely that American agriculture could return to a culture of the smaller, family farms. However, policies and laws must exist to ensure the best possible stewardship of the land, water, air and livestock.

As former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, who is chairman of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, explains, "I believe that the IFAP system was first developed simply to help increase farmer productivity and that the negative effects were never intended. Regardless, the consequences are real and serious and must be addressed."