American agriculture must move away from its focus on large, industrial farms to reverse environmental and human health problems, a private commission reported Tuesday.
The report examined the impact of what it called the widespread use of industry-like facilities, where large numbers of cattle, pigs and chickens are concentrated, often in very close quarters, for rapid growth and preparation for slaughter.
"There is increasing urgency to chart a new course," concluded the report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which spent more than two years examining the industrial farm systems.
The facilities, the report concluded, "often pose unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the animals themselves" while shifting rural America's economic power from farmers to livestock processors.
The study was a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The 15 commission members offered a mix of expertise, from agriculture and the food industry to public policy, veterinary medicine and animal welfare.
"We're certainly not suggesting we go back to what is perceived to be the good old days of small family farms," said panel chairman John Carlin of Kansas State University, a former Kansas governor.
Carlin said the panel believes "there are going to have to be ... significant changes to address some of the public health and environmental issues" raised by the large feed lots and concentrations of livestock and poultry.
The commission examined a broad range of issues, such as the impact of livestock waste on lakes, streams and soil; the human health implications of the industry's extensive use of low-level antimicrobials for animal growth; the impact of factory farms on rural life; and the welfare of the animals themselves.
"The integration of these issues is not to be taken lightly," said commission member Michael Blackwell, a former assistant surgeon general. He said many of the problems surrounding the factory farms have human health implications.
For example, the report said, the concentration of animals increases the risks of transmission of disease from animals to humans. The report cited studies that show workers near such farms have been found to experience high levels of respiratory problems.
The commission called for phasing out nontherapeutic use of antimicrobials — substances that kill bacteria — because their widespread use in agriculture is probably contributing to human resistance to antibiotics.
"We know we need to become more prudent in how we use these antimicrobials," said Blackwell, adding that they find their way from animals to humans through meat, vegetables and fruit.
The massive amount of animal waste generated at industrial farms was also cited as a major environmental and health concern. Animals confined in these facilities produce three times as much manure annually as every man, woman and child in the U.S., the report said.