Guest Column: Factory farm externalities: Behind the walls and beyond the fence line

By Karen L. Hudson Ag-gag legislation allows agribusiness entities such as factory farms to enter into what we could call a “secret witness protection” program. They aim for “the program” to be kept secret “with 24-hour-a-day protection from outsiders.” This comparison I refer to comes directly from the very goals of United States Federal Witness Protection Program. In fact, intensive livestock production’s most conspicuous goal is an exclusive protection program from the public.

The current factory farm blueprint (touted as efficient modern production agriculture) has failed to provide socially and morally acceptable animal health and well-being. The public already knows it, and the industry realizes it is losing its public relations battle. It is equally important, however, that the public remains cognizant of the other threats ag-gag bills incur on humans and the environment. A bit of ‘sound science’

New research and “sound science” provides the facts for this discussion. Data now show that as the number of animals increase on a facility, animal husbandry quality goes down. In turn, crowded and stressed livestock have a higher pathogen (an agent that causes disease) loading rate in their manure. About 75 percent of the drugs, such as antibiotics routinely fed to animals in confinement eventually, end up in its waste. For disposal, it is injected, spread or sprayed on the surrounding fields ­ even in high-wind situations, causing an aerosolized drift that can cover surface waters, buildings and properties.

In the state of Iowa, federal health investigators discovered antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other pollutants commonly associated with hog manure in wells, drainage ditches and waterways offsite and well beyond the property line of factory farms. Data indicate that people living near factory farms have a greater likelihood of having contaminated wells. USDA has stated that factory farms over-apply animal waste to the tune of $2 billion a year in environmental costs.

It’s not just the smell

Over the past two decades, research shows factory farm neighbors are reporting similar health problems as individuals who work daily inside of confinement buildings. Small airborne particulate emissions that escape these operations can contain, among other things, viruses, endotoxins, dusts, drugs, feed, disinfectants, pesticides, hair, dander, skin parts, insects and even dried urine and fecal matter.

New research has found that air inside livestock confinements can be composed of dangerous “superbug” bacteria resistant to important antibiotics used in human medicine. One study showed antibiotic-resistant staph and other pathogens inside of homes downwind of swine facilities, which means shutting doors and windows is of no protection for families inside.

Neighbors routinely experience health changes such as headaches, nausea and vomiting, and mood changes when they are exposed to chemical plumes from barns and manure application sites. Odorous compounds and more than 160 types of gases such as hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia and more flow beyond the property lines of factory farms.

Hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of manure breakdown, is particularly dangerous in that it is neurologically toxic, even at low ambient levels. Infants, children, immune-compromised individuals and the elderly are especially susceptible when exposed to these fugitive emissions.

They come in all shapes and forms

Ag-gag laws appear in many shapes and sizes. Some make criminals out of citizens taking or possessing photographic evidence of animal factories without the owners’ consent, which takes away the public’s ability to document illegal activities that should be subject to investigations and enforcement. Some masquerade as “no chronic complainer bills,” which put citizens at a disadvantage, and even subject them to fines if they file multiple reports. Others, like “no anonymous complaints” legislation, take away the ability of citizens to file complaints anonymously, which publicly identifies the individual complainer, making available his personal information. This casts a chilling effect on anyone living in small-town America who might consider reporting suspected violations for fear of retaliation.


Because of weak regulations, poor enforcement and a lack of funding for states to monitor and respond to the needs of the public, neighborhoods are routinely shouldered with the burden (externality) of being the “watchdogs” to consistently document odor events, spills, fish kills and other incidents that seem out of the ordinary.

The atrocity of ag-gag laws is that they make innocent neighbors, which include schools, churches and businesses ­ and even workers inside these facilities ­ criminals if they act to report events that would uphold the law and protect the community.

Ag-gag bills can be likened to public health inspectors forbidden from documenting food safety violations at filthy food processing facilities and restaurants.

Factory farm supporters claim they are efficient, but in fact, they reap their profits at the expense of the animals, public health and the environment. Ag-gag attempts to silence the expanding worldwide uproar about the glaring externalities that occur behind the walls and even beyond the property lines of factory farms.

Karen L. Hudson is an Illinois farmer, mother and grandmother, a member of Socially Responsible Agricultural Project and co-founder of Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water.