American agriculture has changed dramatically over the past century, moving from traditionally small family farms to a large agricultural industry, where currently only four companies produce eighty-one percent of cows, seventy-three percent of sheep, fifty percent of chickens, and sixty percent of hogs that Americans eat. To keep up with the increase in meat consumption, the agricultural industry now produces as much meat as possible with as little cost as possible, turning modern farming into a business. In 2009, there were 8.6 billion chickens, 113 million pigs, and over 34 million cattle, including 944,000 calves, killed for agricultural purposes. Almost all of these animals are raised on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.
Commonly referred to as “factory farms,” Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, are animal producing operations that have become a common part of today’s agricultural industry, providing most of the food animals that Americans eat. CAFOs are large Animal Feeding Operations, or AFOs, which “congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland." CAFOs may confine over 125,000 chickens, over 10,000 pigs, over 1,000 cows, or many other large quantities of animals.
CAFOs raise animal welfare, environmental degradation, and human health concerns. In terms of animal welfare, one of the greatest concerns is the close confinement and crowdedness of the animals. These conditions create boredom and stress in the animals, as well as physical and mental illnesses. In terms of environmental degradation and human health concerns, the number one problem is animal manure, which is produced in such massive quantities that the soil cannot absorb the waste, thus leaving it to run off fields and pollute the surrounding soil and water, including human drinking water. Additionally, methane emissions from CAFOs both contribute to greenhouse gases and create adverse physical and mental health impacts in humans. CAFOs also increase the prevalence of antibiotic resistant diseases, due to the antibiotics regularly given to the animals.
While agribusiness has rapidly expanded, measures to protect animals, the environment, and human health have not kept pace with its growth. Beginning in 2002, several states enacted ballot proposals that focused on creating minimum confinement standards for animals on CAFOs. In reaction to these ballot initiatives, state legislation concerning animal welfare on CAFOs also sprang up. Concerns of this legislation included confinement standards, the treatment of nonambulatory animals, humane slaughter methods, the force-feeding of birds, and tail docking.
Ballot initiatives are much more effective than legislation in providing relief to animal confinement concerns, as they are created and voted on directly by the people, thus bypassing political constraints that might otherwise hinder legislative progress on these issues. Ballot initiatives tend to make greater advancements for animal welfare than do legislative acts, and are often begun by animal interest organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States or Farm Sanctuary. These initiatives have tended to spur legislation because agribusiness leaders attempt to preempt the more progressive ballot initiatives by encouraging legislatures to enact more conservative animal legislation before the ballot initiatives ever come to vote. Ballot initiatives, therefore, currently provide the most effective way of enacting change in animal welfare and treatment on CAFOs, as well as the most progressive form of change.