Barbara Sha Cox knows that there's nothing funny about leaking, underground gasoline tanks or abandoned, polluted industrial sites known as brownfields. The lifelong family farmer is part of a group of environmentalists that meets monthly with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). And she is a regular at committee meetings of all kinds held by the General Assembly and other state agencies like IDEM.
But she chuckles when considering how little state government has learned from the past. "I sit in those meetings, and I think, 'They're talking about all these underground tanks, the brownfields, and how they've got to deal with them and all the leakage,'" the retired nurse says. "I keep thinking, 'How can you not have the foresight to see that you have this huge environmental problem that you are not acknowledging?'"
Cox laughs often during a two-hour conversation over an oak table in fellow activist Allen Hutchison's farmhouse, one of thousands of Indiana and national epicenters in the ongoing environmental storm she speaks of. "Within a five-and-a-half-mile circle," Hutchison says, sweeping his index finger in a semicircle, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) hold and store roughly 100,000 hogs and cows, and their waste.
Over his shoulder, just a few hundred yards away, looms a 7.2-acre manure lagoon that has lately drawn national media attention from publications as diverse as the Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal due to fears it could explode from methane gas buildup.
Both activists have gotten so physically ill while testing the air for pollutants emanating from CAFO barns and farm fields where the manure has been applied that they must wear gas masks when performing this civic duty.
Both also expected the easy life at this stage in their lives. "My plans were to spend my time on that farm, to travel and just be carefree," Cox says, while Hutchison nods. But since Gov. Mitch Daniels' election in 2004 opened the gates for mostly out-of-state CAFO operators to permeate rural Indiana with hog and cow manure, the pair have become committed environmentalists.
And they are subjects in a book about CAFOs, titled Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment, by Brooklyn-based author David Kirby, another subject that elicits a hearty Barbara Cox laugh.
"To be honest, when he called me I thought, 'An author from New York?'" she says. "You know, I was a little leery. But I did offer to meet with him. And when I met David I was really impressed with him, because he's warm, he's human, he really wanted our stories."
At first blush, David Kirby would seem the last person Hoosier farm families might expect to understand their plights.
Barbara Sha Cox and husband Dan still sport a Bush-Cheney sticker on their pickup truck, and they live outside of Winchester, population 5,037 at last Census count, just north of I-70 on the Ohio border. She's retired from the healthcare industry, Dan retired from a career in banking. They have two kids, one of whom lost her sight as a child to a rare eye disease.
Kirby is a California native and UC-Berkeley graduate, a former aide to New York City Mayor David Dinkins and a former New York Times reporter who lives in a liberal, multicultural neighborhood in Brooklyn with his two dogs. In 2005, his first book on vaccines and autism made the New York Times bestseller list.
Kirby sought the stories of rural Americans for three years, while researching Animal Factory. He visited 18 states, from the Neuse River watershed in rural southeastern North Carolina to the Yakima Valley in Washington state.
The book, he said last December during an interview in his brownstone apartment, was inspired by citizens like Cox and Hutchison, who share their land, water and air with factory farms; experience environmental indignities daily as a consequence; and refuse to accept them as the status quo.
"It is told from the point of view of people who live in rural environments, largely conservative, bedrock Americans, Republicans," Kirby said. They are mostly family farmers who lived quiet, normal lives, until their communities were invaded by CAFOs that bred or raised "hundreds, if not thousands, of animals nearby, on land that's barely large enough to support a few animals."
Federal law defines Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) as "agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals and production operations on a small land area." CAFOs are larger than Confined Feeding Operations (CFOs), which Indiana law defines as "any animal feeding operation engaged in the confined feeding of at least 300 cattle, or 600 swine or sheep, or 30,000 fowl, such as chickens, turkeys or other poultry."
The total number of animals held in these facilities is not limited by governmental laws or rules, IDEM Public Information Officer Barry Sneed said in an e-mail. The limiting factor is that under Indiana rules "they are required to have 180 days storage capacity for manure produced by the number of animals that they have and enough acreage for application of manure."
Kirby's subjects are citizens who revolted against these industrial megafarms and the environmental degradation they cause. "These people had enough," he said. "They'd had enough of the odors, they'd had enough of the flies, of the water contamination."
They were also concerned about the impact these facilities have on their communities. "They were displacing small family farms," Kirby continued. "They were not particularly contributing to the local economies. And they were coming at a very, very fast pace."
Kirby builds the Animal Factory story around three CAFO activists from North Carolina, central-west Illinois and the Yakima Valley in Washington state. But he follows the narrative to other states, including Indiana.
"I spent a lot of time in Indiana, I went there several times, I went everywhere," he said, punctuating the last point with a long laugh, "just about everywhere."
"Nice state, very nice people," he said, not just speaking of the farm families he met. He also spoke to government officials and producers, and he visited some CAFOs recommended by the Indiana Pork Producers Association, an industry lobbying group.
"Now these were model farms," Kirby said. "These were award-winning farms that were spanking clean. The animals seemed happy. They were in confinements, but the owners seemed to be responsible stewards of the land and were doing things like recycling their waste and composting, trying not to use antibiotics. Trying to be really, really good neighbors."
But such best-practice models are anything but the rule in Indiana and across the country, he added. And what he encountered in his time in the fields here was a dispirited Hoosier citizenry.
"I found a lot of anger and a lot of sadness, a lot of feeling of loss," he said. "And these were all farmers, all of them, virtually. These were not Yuppies moving to the country for a weekend house. These were not antiagricultural Greenpeace people."
Cox is the first Hoosier Kirby mentions by name, in the interview and in Animal Factory.
"Barbara is indefatigable," he said.
Indiana CAFO watch is born
Barbara Sha (pronounced shay) Cox's retirement took a knee in 2003, when a Randolph County Commissioner insulted her at a public meeting. She spoke against a proposed dairy CAFO near her farm, and a commissioner retorted that she was driven by not-in-my-backyard motivations.
"That commissioner accusing me of not wanting it just in my backyard, and me committing to say I don't want it in anybody's backyard," she says, "that launched us."
The specific facility Cox protested that night did end up on the other side of the county, away from the 240-acre family farm, which had been owned by Barbara's parents. She sold the dairy equipment after her father died to raise money to help care for her mother's Alzheimer's. She kept the acreage and rents it to sharecroppers.
And while she did help shoo the industrial farm away from her own backyard, Cox made good on her vow to fight CAFOs in her neighbors', as well. She networked with other citizens across the state and formed a grassroots activist group, whose influence Kirby describes in Animal Factory:
"Barbara and other fledgling activists had formed an ad hoc citizens group called Indiana CAFO Watch, which, by 2007, had become a force to be reckoned with among bureaucrats and lawmakers in Indianapolis, as well as the state's powerful animal agriculture groups and the Indiana Farm Bureau."
As the group's de facto leader, Cox has become an institution in the Statehouse and Indiana Government Center.
"I think she works down there," Hutchinson says.
"One lady asked me what office I worked for," Cox laughs.
Her latest contribution to the CAFO cause is a March 11 letter she wrote to Gov. Daniels, signed by 23 fellow citizens, that lays out her growing concerns over "events of the past nine months," among them the "Bubble Trouble Lagoon" next to Allen and Judy Hutchison's family farm.
The Hutchisons likewise expected to be traveling and enjoying their farm after hanging up their full-time hats. Instead, Allen, clad this late-winter day in dark blue denim shirt and overalls with a cell phone attached just above the strap clasp, finds himself sitting up all night, sometimes documenting activities at the Bubble Trouble farm, officially known as Union Go Dairy, owned by Tony Goltstein.
According to its Annual Report submitted to IDEM on Feb. 15, 2010, Goltstein has 1,290 "Mature Dairy Cattle" that generated 15.5 million gallons of manure, and he transferred 3.7 million gallons of it off-site in the previous 12 months.
When the lagoon was under construction, Goltstein's workers were happy to allow Hutchison, his cousin and other neighbors on the property. "They invited us back there, and said, 'We got nothing to hide.' Well, we heard a lot of things and saw a lot of stuff down there."
Hutchison says the plans for Bubble Trouble called for it to be 7.2 acres and 14-feet deep, the largest in Randolph County and one of the biggest in the state.He literally watched them build it and is not surprised it could explode. "It's got holes in it," he says of the lagoon's liner, which is supposed to lie on the lagoon bottom and protect groundwater from contamination. "It's full of methane."
As one explanation of how the liner may have been torn, Hutchison says Bubble Trouble has a 40-horsepower pump that sits on a pontoon and recirculates liquid from the top back to the barn, where it is used to wash the animal waste back to the lagoon. The liner was not only installed improperly, the crew brought in a crane and set the pump on top of the liner, when the lagoon was dry.
"You think that might tear it?" Cox chuckles.
Regardless of how it got under the liner, methane gas, a byproduct of manure lagoons, has accumulated and broke Bubble Trouble's surface in 17 places, Hutchison says. "The liner has virtually come up through the manure. What you're seeing back there now is the liner. It should be on the bottom, but instead it's full of gas, making big bubbles."
IDEM's Sneed said in an e-mail that the 2004 permit for the lagoon called for a "geomembrane liner" on top of two feet of compacted clay. The Wall Street Journal reported that Goltstein, who is 43 and moved his family to Randolph County from the Netherlands, "had installed a black plastic liner."
Sneed said IDEM first observed the bubbles during an inspection in July 2008. "It was first believed that the bubbles were caused by a buildup of methane gas under the geomembrane liner. Union Go Dairy reported that one of the bubbles burst overnight on July 21, 2008, and it was revealed that solids were building up under the geomembrane liner."
IDEM took enforcement action against the facility, Sneed continued. And Union Go is poised to grow. "The facility has proposed to address the liner issue by constructing two new lagoons to hold the manure from the present lagoon so it may be drained and repaired," he wrote. "Once the repair is made, the farm will utilize a three-stage lagoon system."
IDEM approved a 322-animal expansion in May 2009. Citizens appealed the permit, and the matter is still pending.
In the meantime, on March 15, Union Go submitted a proposal to release the gas from the bubbles. And two weeks later, the dairy carried out its plan.
"Staff worked with the consultant for the site to make sure that any gas released would be done in a controlled manner and that air monitoring would be in place to assure the release did not have an adverse impact on the community," Sneed wrote in an April 5 e-mail. "The controlled release of the bubbles occurred April 1, 2010. The measured levels of hydrogen sulfide outside of the bubbles were well below OSHA air quality standards."
Dealing with the stench
The threat of potentially explosive manure lagoons and contaminated well water would be enough to turn the 5'3" Cox gray if she weren't already. But the most implacable environmental assault she and her neighbors must deal with is the stench, from the barns, the lagoons and the fields.
Cox and Hutchison emphasize that they have lived their entire lives in farm country and are comfortable with the smell of fertilized fields. But that's not what CAFO odor is. "It's not manure," Cox says. "I mean, when you're around a farm you're going to smell it. This is a chemical smell."
In an interview two years ago, Hutchison said the odor was so pervasive that his clothes sometimes smelled like manure coming out of the drier. Today, the bubbles have displaced so much of the manure that the smell isn't as bad as it was then. But it's still horrific, and unpredictable.
"I can go to the barn and not smell a thing," he says. "And I can come to the house and it just knocks you down. And we're what, 125 feet?"
Air pollution from CAFOs threatens more than just creature comforts. It can contain ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, two chemicals known to have toxic effects on humans.
According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), ammonia is a corrosive substance the toxic effects of which are restricted to the "sites of direct contact," including skin, eyes, respiratory tract, mouth and digestive tract. "If you walked into a dense cloud of ammonia or if your skin comes in contact with concentrated ammonia, your skin, eyes, throat, or lungs may be severely burned," it says. "These burns might be serious enough to cause permanent blindness, lung disease, or death."
Exposure to low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, the ATSDR says, may irritate the eyes, nose or throat and may cause difficulty in breathing for asthmatics. "Brief exposures to high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide (greater than 500 parts per million or ppm) can cause a loss of consciousness and possibly death," it says.
Because neither animals nor workers could survive inside CAFO barns due to these toxins' presence, the barns are equipped with multiple, industrial-sized exhaust fans that blow them out into the air, unfiltered, across roads and property lines. Manure from the lagoons is used to fertilize farm fields, spreading the smell even further.
Concerned about the potential health impacts from these chemicals, Cox and Hutchison borrowed a portable air monitor from the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRA) that tests the air for ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. The device looks like an antique Electrolux vacuum cleaner, long and cylindrical with a hose coming out the end. "We go around and roll the window down and hang that thing out the window and set there for five minutes," Hutchison says. "And it will take the sample."
One of the first complaints the pair responded to came from a Randolph County school that said CAFO manure was being spread on a nearby field in high winds. "They had some kind of function at the school," Cox says, "and people were running for their cars."
According to IDEM's Sneed, there are no federal standards on air pollutants emitted from CAFOs. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is wrapping up a two-year federal study on CAFO air emissions. Al Heber, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue, is in charge.
The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) does set permissible workplace exposure limits for ammonia, which its Web site says range from 25 to 50 ppm, and hydrogen sulfide, which range from 10 to 50 ppm.
When Hutchison and Cox responded to the complaints from the school, the first reading they took indicated 876 parts per billion (ppb) for ammonia, Cox says. They weren't sure they had done it right, returned home, recalibrated the equipment and then retested. The second test showed 1,099 ppb.
Their readings in the parts-per-billion range do not approach OSHA's parts-per-million standards. But over the past couple of years they have recorded about two dozen tests that showed ammonia in the air at "anywhere from 187 to 800 parts per billion," Hutchison says.
Poring over pages in a hand-written journal, Cox says the machine detected hydrogen sulfide at 537 ppb at one family's home, stressing that they are not experts in the science of air monitoring.
"I have told everybody we don't want to be portrayed as professionals," she says, tapping the hardwood tabletop for emphasis, explaining that they were trained but aren't certified. "We're just doing it to indicate, 'Hey, this is what is really happening.'"
On multiple occasions, Cox and Hutchison haven't needed equipment to detect the presence of toxins, and their experiences call into question the validity of the OSHA limits. Just sitting the five minutes it takes for the machine to take a reading was unbearable. "Your eyes burn so bad," Cox says, reading a number of experiences from 2009.
"This was 11.10.09," she says, "I've written down here that we consider it to be a hazard to our health. And we did not leave. I mean, I have never smelled anything as bad."
Hutchison confirms: "Yeah, your lungs burnt."
After spending that evening vomiting, Cox says, she told the SRA she couldn't do it anymore. "They had these," she says, pulling out two gas masks, "and they sent them to us."
Between the rough winter and a couple surgeries – Cox's ophthalmologist told her to stay out of the stench after cataract surgery – the pair says they fell behind in their mission. But now that they are healthy and have gas masks to protect their eyes, noses and throats, they are re-energized.
"We've lost some time," Barbara says. "I think now we can get going."
At taxpayers' expense
Citizen activists across the state only wish they had protective gear to inoculate them against the insults they experience when seeking redress for their grievances from their government.
"It's very awakening," Cox says, describing her experiences with all levels of government, from the county commissioners to IDEM to the Legislature. "As a citizen, you pay your taxes, you try to live by the rules, and you think you are a part of Indiana. And all of a sudden you find out you're a nuisance."
Hutchison scoffs at the idea that IDEM will protect neighbors or the environment from threats posed by factory farms. IDEM's Office of Land Quality is responsible for CAFOs, and the office is woefully understaffed.
"They've only got 17 inspectors for the whole damn state," he says. "They figure they can get around once every six years."
Sneed confirms the number of inspectors, who must monitor the estimated 625 CFOs and CAFOs Indiana, as well as landfills, waste transfer stations, septage haulers, and illegal dumping and illegal waste tire dumping complaints. "At a minimum, inspections are done every five years," he wrote. "However, a farm that has compliance issues may be inspected more frequently."
He also confirmed allegations that IDEM notifies CAFO operators of inspections in advance. "Due to biosecurity issues, inspections are planned and announced in advance, unless we are responding to a complaint," he wrote. "Typically those are unannounced."
Animals held in CAFOs are particularly vulnerable to pathogens like viruses, so protective, biosecurity measures against them are necessary when humans enter the barns.
The latest IDEM issue that has raised CAFO neighbors' ire is the agency's failure to require legal documentation that operators have insurance or the means to clean up CAFOs if they go out of business.
"I've seen them run over," Cox says of abandoned lagoons, "like what happened in Dundee that day. ... You get all that rain, and it brings it up, and that's why this old black stuff was running down the streets of Dundee."
And neighbors fear the worst at Union Go Dairy, where, the Wall Street Journal reported: "The Goltsteins filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month; their bank began foreclosure proceedings. Mr. Goltstein said repairing or replacing the lagoon liner could cost him more than $200,000 – money, he said, he doesn't have."
Indiana CAFO Watch's latest letter to the governor asks: "How many of these will be closed without proper environmental procedures by the owners? Muncie Sow, in Delaware County, was closed, and the facility was allowed to be sold to another party without proper closure and environmental cleanup. When IDEM finally made the move to clean up the area, the cost was over $200,000 at taxpayers' expense. Then, of course, the rest of the pollution went down the river while killing the fish and polluting a recreational area. The CAFO owner has not appeared in Court."
Gov. Daniels did not respond to specific questions sent by NUVO. But his IDEM Liaison, Kristin Wiley, did answer Indiana CAFO Watch's letter, through a March 24 e-mail, sent through a program that does not allow direct response.
Wiley said IDEM was monitoring the Union Go bubbles and that water testing near the facility showed no problems. And with respect to the group's calls for financial assurance, she said, "Most, if not all, regulated facilities operate within the guidelines of their permit and the need for cleanup has rarely occurred."
IDEM has the ability to recover costs from the responsible party, she wrote. "This means that the costs would not be the responsibility of the agency, or the taxpayers."
The cost to clean up Muncie Sow "was not more than $200,000," Wiley wrote. "IDEM, through the attorney general's office, is in the process of seeking cost recovery from the current owners. The current owners have been charged with contempt for violating their court order."
She told Cox that everyone has to work together. "This administration is seeking greatness in every aspect of life in Indiana," she wrote. "I want us to aspire to excellence and to share the understanding that we are all in this together."
Adventures in lobbying
After her experiences over the past several years, Cox laughs at the notion that the Daniels administration or the Legislature cares about CAFO neighbors' lives.
When she first started working the Legislature, Cox says, she was disregarded. "You know, like, 'There's that woman.' But I kept taking information, and pretty soon I guess they decided I wasn't going away. I think a lot of them did everything they could to discourage me."
She ticks off a list of exceptions to that statement: Democratic Senators Sue Errington and Timothy Lanane, Republican Allen Paul, and Democratic Representatives Dave Cheatam and Phil Pflum, Republican Thomas Saunders.
"But there are so many of them that just really cannot give you the time of day," she says.
Initially, lobbying the Legislature was an adventure, she says. "I had to sit with the suits, you know, and I tried to figure out how the suits did it. And then I could proceed. I understood which door to go to, and how I had to ask, and the candy jar I was supposed to eat out of."
But adventure quickly turned to revulsion as she learned how stacked the system is against citizens who have suffered harm from their government's failures. "What I have found totally unacceptable is that the Farm Bureau, the Pork Producers, all of them, they get all their time, they're listened to," she says.
Republican State Sen. Beverly Gard from Greenfield, who chairs the Senate Energy and Environmental Affairs Committee, which kills CAFO bills every session, will occasionally say things like, "In my meeting with industry," Cox says. "Well, we're here too. I find that to be most distasteful, that we're treated that way."
She cites as especially infuriating the session just ended, in which citizens unsuccessfully promoted legislation that would require CAFO owners to prevent dead animals from being dragged onto neighboring properties.
Hutchison explains that CAFO animals die every day, and their carcasses are composted in three-sided structures that allow "coyotes and other varmints" to drag them away. A "danged gate" on the fourth side would take care of the problem, he says, "a stupid gate."
It is such a common-sense issue, Cox says. "All they needed to do was cover their compost pile. That's really what we asked for."
But when Rep. Pflum introduced the bill in the Agriculture & Rural Development Committee, he said that he knew it wouldn't pass. "Their minds were made up before we ever left home," Hutchison says. "Now, it's just that simple."
Cox says two committee members – Republicans Don Lehe and William Friend – own CAFOs. "They are sitting on that committee," she says. "Lehe and Friend, they will vote against anything."
The upshot of their experiences is clear.
"To tell the truth, in actuality, they don't want you there," Hutchison says. "They don't want you there at all."
"No they do not," Cox agrees.
Hutchison notes that several legislators have won awards for being environmentalists. "But every environmental bill that comes up down there, they kill it," he says, "unless it's in their county and it's going to help their county."
"Or if the Farm Bureau wants it," Cox says.
"Or if the hog producers want it," Hutchison says. "Then, it's 'Yeah, we can do that.'"
IDEM officials frequently say at meetings that they should let the Farm Bureau decide something or that they will talk to the Farm Bureau, Cox says.
"Well, you know, it's not Farm Bureau's state," she says.
Steven Higgs is a freelance writer based in Bloomington, where he publishes The Bloomington Alternativeand writes the "Autism and the Indiana Environment Blog." He can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.
The ongoing lawsuit
Rural Indiana citizens seeking judicial relief from the omnipresent environmental assaults that accompany Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations received some encouraging news last month from Missouri, where a jury awarded seven families $11 million for their suffering.
"Plaintiffs, some of whom have owned their farms for well over 100 years and spanning five generations, alleged that relentless and extreme odors emanating from defendants' finishing farm – known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs – created an unreasonable nuisance," the PR Newswire reported on March 5. "Family members testified at trial that the smell was intense enough to prevent them from venturing outdoors on many days."
Two of the lawyers who won the case – Richard H. Middleton Jr. from Savannah, Ga., and Charles F. Speer from Kansas City – also represent more than a dozen Hoosier families who have endured the same declines in quality of life as did rural residents in Jackson County, Mo.
Indianapolis attorney Richard D. Hailey is also on the legal team, and he said six lawsuits have been filed in Indiana on behalf of 12 individuals, a number that will almost certainly grow. "We are looking at the potential of filing as many as a dozen more cases," he said during a phone interview on April 9.
That CAFOs are not traditional family farming was evident in the PR Newswire's description of the lawsuit's defendants. The citizens sued hog producers Premium Standard Farms, Inc. (PSF), which is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods and the privately held ContiGroup Companies (previously Continental Grain).
The verdict is the largest monetary award against a hog farm in an odor nuisance case, the article said.
The citizens filed their case in 2002. And when it finally got to the courtroom, the article continued, the jury heard "nearly five weeks of evidence centering on defendants' land application of massive quantities of liquid hog manure, maintenance of multiple-acre wastewater lagoons, and other odor-producing activities."
The article quoted lead trial attorney Middleton: "The families who brought this case have been living under a toxic cloud of hog waste produced by Premium Standard for more than 11 years. Defendants claimed their operations complied with state environmental regulations – however, this trial showed that PSF produced industrial-scale pollution with complete lack of regard for the extreme toxicity its operation caused for its neighbors, day in and day out."
Hailey said the verdict sent the message to it is time for the industry to clean up its act. "I think Jackson County tells us that the industry needs to be more concerned about their liability in these situations," he said.
And, Hailey added, the verdict has direct implications for Indiana.
"One of the notions was, 'Well, these rural people live around animals, so they won't care about the sludge and filth and smell and the contamination of their water,'" he said. "Well, Jackson County is not exactly Manhattan, N.Y. It's not exactly the west side of L.A. I think this notion that rural people don't want the same enjoyment of life as all of us do has pretty much been debunked by that jury." —SH
Literature about food
Our country's reliance on industrial agriculture isn't the only thing that's growing. So is the literature about it.
For many readers, Michael Pollan's "local foods" trilogy — Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules (Penguin) — provides a point of entry into the expanding national dialogue about the long-term health consequences of ingesting processed food. Recently, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer added his unique voice to the conversation in a nonfiction work, Eating Animals (Little, Brown). This inquiry into the ethics of eating meat by a convert to vegetarianism has been joined by the recent vegan manifesto The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food (Norton) by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. All of these titles dwell not just on the immense cruelty involved in bringing a burger to the take-out window or a tenderloin to the State Fair midway but also on our culture's intense aversion to acknowledging it.
It's up to David Kirby's Animal Factory (St. Martin's Press) to provide the clearest look to date at the horrible costs of factory farms to our health and environment. Though he claims at the outset that his is not an "anti-CAFO" book, anyone who wades through the 452 pages and comes out feeling good about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations is in deep denial.
The reader wades through Kirby's book not because of the prose — he's a gifted writer and interviewer — but because the bulk of the text deals with crap. Millions of confined animals produce millions of gallons of manure every day that is untreated before finding its way onto farm fields and into waterways. After crisscrossing the country and speaking with concerned rural neighbors who live with the noxious effects of manure factories in their midst, Kirby reports that the only reason CAFOs make money is because they violate laws intended to protect the environment.
Kirby's research brought him to Indiana, yet he has a detached outsider's perspective on the steamy debate over the state's controversial poop ponds. He doesn't muck up his boots in muddy arguments about meat-eating. The reader is left to decide if Kirby is honorable for simply reporting or deplorable because he doesn't take a stand.
Lierre Keith presents no such dilemma. Her new book, The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability (Flashpoint Press) is precisely what is expected from a publishing house founded by radical author/activist Derrick Jensen: pointed, provocative and personal.
After 20 years as a vegan, and suffering serious health consequences due to poor nutrition, Keith makes a passionate case for transformation of the nation's food system to include raising and killing animals in a humane manner. She confronts her former vegan allies with compassion because she understands and agrees with the underlying political rationale for their choice. Her enlightening critiques, supported by some inconvenient truths, are no doubt apostasy to the faithful.
If there's a vegan in your family, read this book together to start a conversation about healthy food choices and what they mean for social justice and environmental responsibility. Afterwards, rip up your lawn together and plant a vegetable garden. —Thomas P. Healy