Where Does Your Meat Come From? Sustainable Farms Give Alternatives to CAFOs

If you’ve spent time driving through the Midwest, you’ve probably driven past a semi transporting livestock. Maybe you’ve scrunched your nose at the smell or pointed out the pairs of eyes staring from the trailer’s ventilation holes as a distraction for the bored kids in your backseat. But have you thought about the trailer’s origin or destination? Maybe not, and that’s not unusual, but there’s more to the agricultural industry than the livestock trailers you pass on the interstate.

More often than not, these trailers are transporting livestock from factory farms to meatpacking plants, where the animals will be slaughtered and processed into the meat that ends up in your grocery store.Factory farms, or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), are industrial agriculture facilities that raise animals at a high density for human consumption. And while CAFOs might be economically beneficial because they provide low-cost meat, the environmental and health consequences suffered as a result of this agricultural model should not be overlooked.

One obvious environmental problem that stems from CAFOs is an abundance of manure. Although some of the manure produced can be used for fertilizer, that solution does not account for all of manure produced on factory farms. A report written by the CDC notes that this excess manure and its lack of proper storage can lead to numerous environmental consequences, including poor ground and surface water quality, increased air pollution, and elevated greenhouse gas emissions.

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The EPA was able to identify twenty-nine states in the U.S. where animal feeding operations and concentrated animal feeding operations contributed to decreased water quality. Groundwater, which 53% of the United States’ population relies on as a source for drinking water, can be contaminated by runoff from manure applied to fields and improper manure management. Contaminated groundwater can in turn contaminate surface water like rivers and streams as well.

Air pollution is linked to a plethora of health risks, as noted in this chart produced by the CDC. Emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and particulate matter result in health risks such as chronic bronchitis, chronic lung disease, declines in lung function, and chemical burns to the respiratory tract. Communities near CAFOs can often even smell these pollutants, and studies show an increased risk of asthma in individuals who live near these factory farms as a result. CAFOs also emit methane, a large contributor to climate change. This study shows that factory farms are responsible for approximately 18% of global greenhouse gas production and over 7% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

These environmental and health effects seem a high price to pay for the convenience of lower cost meat and dairy products in grocery stores. But the current agriculture model is just the way it has to be done, right? Not exactly. As an alternative to corporate agriculture and concentrated animal feeding operations, regenerative agriculture and small scale family farms are dotted across the Midwest’s landscape. While this environmentally-friendly model of agriculture is less common, it provides extensive benefits when compared to the corporate ag norm. SILT (Sustainable Iowa Land Trust) is an organization in Iowa founded in 2015 with the goal of providing farmable land at affordable costs to individuals who agree to follow sustainable farming practices, are committed to improving soil, air, and water quality, and want to help change the face of agriculture in Iowa and the Midwest.

Although regenerative agriculture offers valuable solutions, the corporate agriculture giant still looms overhead, controlling the majority of the market and offering itself as the best choice. Next time you head to the grocery store, consider the journey that chicken breast made to reach the shelf and the way its existence affects the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the earth you live on. Try using this online tool to find a small, sustainable farm in your area to source your family’s protein while supporting local family farms, your local economy, and the planet we call home.


In the spring, I’ll be digging more into the agriculture industry in Iowa and learning about what impacts it’s had on Iowans. In the meantime, you can check out RCC’s reports on CAFO’s, Pork and Pollution and Fowl Matters. And keep an eye out for a new podcast created through the Rachel Carson Council’s Fellowship program, “The Real Steaks: the True Cost of the Agriculture Industry,” coming in Spring 2021!



Emma Chervek –Rachel Carson Council Fellow, Central College

Emma Chervek is a senior at Central College studying English, Spanish, and Secondary Education to become an environmental journalist. Her RCC Fellowship Project is reporting on factory farms and sustainable alternatives through a new podcast series, “The Real Steaks: the True Cost of the Agriculture Industry.”

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