COLUMBIA — Rural farmers, health care professionals and environmentalists will converge in Columbia this week for a three-day symposium about factory farms and the role of corporate agriculture in Missouri.
The symposium, called “CAFO — Far from the Farm,” begins at 2 p.m. Tuesday at MU's Ellis Auditorium and continues from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Ragtag Cinema and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Columbia Art League. It is free and open to the public.
One focus will be on concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in the context of sustainable agriculture, environmental responsibility and related legislation.
“People are very concerned about CAFOs, factory farms, and that’s what this symposium is all about: finding a common ground in order to change the legislation that often favors corporate groups,” said Daria Kerridge, adjunct assistant professor in MU’s Peace Studies and Art departments. She is also the symposium organizer.
“It’s very important to support the rural community as they counter the large corporate interest," Kerridge said. "The farmers need an economic basis to survive and thrive, and often when the CAFO moves in, ethics and economics disappear.”
The event will feature panel discussions by speakers from around the country, including agricultural economists, authors and animal activists.
The following Q-and-A with three of the event's speakers highlights some background for the symposium along with biographical sketches. The Q-and-A was conducted via email.
Gene Baur co-founded and serves as president of Farm Sanctuary, an organization that seeks “to protect farm animals from cruelty, inspire change in the way society views and treats farm animals, and promote compassionate vegan living,” according to the Farm Sanctuary website. Baur travels throughout the country to raise awareness about the food system in support of animal welfare.
Q: What is a concentrated animal feeding operation, and why are they the subject of this symposium?
A: Factory farms are industrial animal production operations that treat animals and the natural world merely as commodities to be exploited. This attitude leads to many problems, which this symposium will help to address. Among the concerns are: the inhumane treatment of animals, the inefficient use of increasingly scarce natural resources, the destruction and pollution of our environment and rural communities, the loss of biodiversity and the development of new pathogens that threaten humans and other animals.
Q: What, if anything, has changed in recent years with how these enterprises are operated?
A: CAFOs have continued to operate in cruel and irresponsible ways, pushing smaller farms out of business, and wielding undue influence in Washington, D.C., and in state legislatures and to secure policies that enable their harmful activities. Alarmingly, this method of food production is now being promoted in other countries, such as China, where meat consumption is increasing. The good news is that there is growing awareness and opposition to factory farming in the U.S., where meat consumption is beginning to decline for the first time in recorded history. The U.S. is in the midst of a sustainable food movement with the growth of farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs, community gardens and other mechanisms that help bring consumers more into contact with the source of their food. I hope that this food movement, and the increased transparency it brings, will help put an end to the expansion and influence of CAFOs.
Registered dietician and writer Melinda Hemmelgarn is the host of “Food Sleuth,” a program aired on KOPN/89.5 FM radio station. She works to educate the public about the importance of connecting food, health and agriculture.
Q: What are some of the issues you believe the public needs to know about surrounding the use of factory farms? Environmental issues? Economic concerns?
A: All of the above, and in fact, they are all related. (If we pollute our water and harm our health, our economy suffers, for example). However one of the most critical public health — and economic — issues facing our society today is the loss of antibiotic effectiveness. When animals are raised in concentrated and stressful conditions, they are more susceptible to illness (just like people). Antibiotics are also given in low doses to promote feed efficiency. I hope no one would argue with the need to treat a sick animal, but better to prevent illness in the first place, and never use our precious antibiotics to promote faster weight gain or growth. Most dangerous is the use of antibiotics that are also used in the human population. Unfortunately, we’ve come to take antibiotics for granted, but the misuse of antibiotics that occurs largely in the livestock industry, is moving us towards a society that does not have functioning antibiotics.
The other issue that is critically important is the protection of our water quality. We are part of our ecosystem, and if we pollute/contaminate our water with excrement — occurring, for example, when manure spills into rivers and streams (often during floods and storms), then we can expect to see fish kills and a loss of our quality of life. For example, many of us like to canoe and swim in Missouri’s beautiful rivers and streams. So we want to keep them as clean as possible to protect not only public health, but also the personal joy we have in recreation – fishing, swimming, etc. If we poison our water, we poison ourselves.
Q: The rise of the local food movement is a topic that’s drawn a lot of attention in recent years from the public and local farmers. How have you seen that movement emerge, change and grow in recent years?
A: You can see the tremendous growth of farmers markets nationally. Why is this happening? People like to be able to shake the hand of the person who produces their food. Relationships are very important – something else we’ve taken for granted. I advise consumers to get to know farmers, visit farms and ask questions about farming practices to find those farmers who produce food best in line with their philosophy.
John Ikerd was appointed a professor emeritus of agricultural economics at MU in 2000. Since retiring from the university in 2000, Ikerd has continued to speak out and publish writings on sustainable agriculture and the economics of sustainability.
Q: What in your mind is a viable alternative to factory farms?
A: There are many viable alternatives to CAFOs: pastured and free-range poultry, grass-based beef and dairy, hoop-house and pastured hogs. All these are just as efficient as CAFOs, they are just more management intensive, meaning they require more thoughtful, caring farmers to produce a given amount of meat, milk or eggs.
Q: What, in your opinion, is a sustainable method of agriculture or food production for the state of Missouri?
A: Grass-based livestock operations are the most logical sustainable systems of livestock production in Missouri. Missouri has an ideal resource base for diversified farms and diversification is an essential principle of sustainable agriculture.
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