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Effects of animals from industrial farms raise serious issues

A new study of animals raised on industrial farms raises serious questions about public health and the effects of those farms on rural communities and on soil productivity.

The study was conducted by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP), which is sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust. The commission is made up of 15 members who are experts in veterinary medicine, public health, agriculture, animal welfare, the food industry and rural society.

According to the report, "The current industrial farm animal production system poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and to the animals themselves… Commissioners have determined that the negative effects of the system are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to ignore. Significant changes must be implemented and must start now."

Industrial farms are described as those in which larger and larger numbers of animals are kept in close confinement without access to pastures or open spaces.

The effects on public health result largely from the huge quantities of animal waste that accumulate on these farms. As a result, what could be useful as fertilizer becomes something that must be disposed of.

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Drainage from these farms conveys excess nutrients and farm chemicals into groundwater, lakes, soils and into the air. The runoff also includes antibiotics, hormones, pesticides and heavy metals. The antibiotics are given to the farm animals to treat and prevent bacterial infections and to promote growth.

The report also quotes a United Nations report stating that "greenhouse gas emissions from all livestock operations account for 18 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, exceeding those from the transportation sector."

The effects of confinement on the animals themselves also are covered in the report. It states that, "Intensive confinement (e.g., gestation crates for swine, battery cages for laying hens) often so severely restricts movement and natural behaviors — such as the ability to walk or lie on natural materials, and having enough floor space to move with some freedom — that it increases the likelihood that the animals suffer severe distress."

The Pew Commission has recommended major changes to reduce the unfavorable effects of Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP) facilities, They include the following:

1. Ban the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in food production animals to reduce the resistance to medically important antibiotics and other microbials.

2. Introduce a disease monitoring program for food animals to allow a 48-hour trace-back of those animals through aspects of their production, in a fully integrated and robust national database.

3. Treat IFAP as an industrial operation and implement a new system to deal with farm waste to replace the inflexible and broken system that exists today, to protect Americans from the adverse environmental and human health hazards of improperly handled IFAP waste.

4. Phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce the risk of IFAP to public health and improve animal well–being (i.e. gestation crates and battery cages).

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5. Increase funding for, expand and reform, animal agriculture research.

Major changes of this kind obviously would be difficult for farm operators, but could be managed if done gradually over a 10-year period. It is obvious from the report that major public health issues are involved and that the effects on soil quality and the water supply are also important. The recommendations also take into account the welfare of the animals involved.

The report should be given prompt attention by members of Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It will be a controversial issue, but the public health, the quality of the soil and the health of the animals involved will be improved if the necessary action is taken.

Boyne is a former publisher and editor of the Post-Bulletin. His column appears weekly.

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