The Environmental Injustice of CAFOs

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) threaten our rural economies, public health, and environmental quality. All of these negative impacts disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color because of where CAFOs operate and who they employ. Therefore, CAFOs are an example of environmental racism: “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color” (Energy Justice Network). Read the National Resource Defense Council’s article on environmental racism and the history of the environmental justice (EJ) movement here. See MCE’s CAFO Storymap for details about the negative impacts of CAFOs.

Where CAFOs Operate

Based on 2019 data, all of Missouri’s most CAFO-dense counties have higher poverty rates than the state average. In our state, the population in these CAFO-dense counties happens to be over 85% white (2019 Census). However, in states like North Carolina, not only are CAFOs about seven times more common in high-poverty areas, they are also approximately five times more likely to be found in majority-nonwhite communities (Wing, et. al.). Why are CAFOs located in these areas? Low-income communities and communities of color typically have the least financial and political resources to prevent hazardous operations like CAFOs from moving into their communities. CAFOs may force small farmers out of business and become one of the only job providers in the area, which makes some employees and residents reluctant to voice their concerns. As a result, they face the most direct economic, environmental, and human health consequences from living near these operations. In North Carolina, hog CAFOs are often built in the same communities as former slave plantations. Over a century after being “liberated” from the abuses of slavery, black residents continue to experience high rates of poverty, negative health outcomes, poor housing and diminished environmental quality (Wendee).

Who CAFOs Employ

Many Missouri CAFOs are located in majority-white communities, but we know that the U.S. agriculture industry has relied heavily on Latinx immigrant labor since the 1942 Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. According to the USDA, 64% of farm laborers, graders, and sorters were ‘Hispanic’ and 55% were not born in the United States as of 2018. The demographics of CAFO labor are not well-documented or reported at the state or national level. However, studies of job-related risk for Missouri CAFO workers such as this indicate that immigrant labor is increasingly common in the CAFO industry and Missouri CAFOs are no exception. Often, immigrant workers are not given job safety training or adequate information about numerous occupational health risks associated with CAFO work. When they are, materials usually are not presented in their primary language (Ramos, et. al.). Overall, “Many immigrant farmworkers are socially, economically, and legally vulnerable which may increase their occupational risks and promote under-reporting of workplace hazards and injuries due to fear of losing their job or being undocumented” (Ramos, et. al.). CAFOs and other forms of industrial agriculture exploit low-wage immigrant workers to minimize their costs and increase their profit margins. 

Supporting a Just Food System

As you can see, CAFOs are part of an industrialized food system which produces and perpetuates socioeconomic and racial inequities. MCE is working to promote a thriving, just food system across Missouri. Such a system involves producers who care for their land and the life on it, the air and water around their land, their workers, and their customers. It involves eaters who have access to affordable, healthy, culturally-relevant food that is grown responsibly. Such a system is resilient and diverse, involving multiple small-scale growers, food distributors, and food outlets and employing individuals of all backgrounds in the food system at a livable wage. Such a system is resilient against threats of climate change and pandemics and is anti-racist and inclusive to ensure people of all walks of life can be employed and be nourished by our food system. MCE is working toward this vision of a thriving, just food system through our efforts to:

  1. Combat the spread of CAFOs
  1. Combat threats to food security
    • Learn more about food access in our region here
    • Read about how St. Louis Food Equity Advisory Board is working to improve food access here
  1. Support small-scale producers who care about people, animals, and the environment 
    • Learn more about our Known & Grown STL program, a brand for environmentally-responsible farmers within 150 miles of St. Louis, here
  1. Lift up beginning farmers and farmers of color who are currently discriminated against in our industrial food system
    • See these farmers featured on the Food Equity Advisory Board’s Instagram page here
    • Read about how you can support equitable food policy here