You may have heard some discussion about a research study reported in the February 2009 issue of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics (91(1):124) conducted by Stacy Sneeringer at Wellesley College. It found that increasing the number of animal units by 100,000 in any county results in a 7.4 percent increase in infant mortality. In this study, the long-term geographic shift of family farm animal production to confined animal feeding operations was evaluated using census and national health data to determine negative health effects associated with the concentration of production livestock. In general, Dr. Sneeringer concluded that an increase in infant mortality is directly related to hazardous air pollutants associated with confined animal feeding operations.
When reviewing this research, it is apparent that accurate and robust economic and statistical methodologies were used in the analysis; however, several issues regarding the data and assumptions used in the analysis lead to concerns about the validity of the conclusions. For example, important pieces of census data needed for accurate analysis were not available. The study further failed to properly consider the impact of specific healthcare practices which directly relate to community health, including infant mortality. Key to any such study would be the consideration of the impact of illegal alien or immigrant workers associated with confined animal feeding operations. One of the most important assumptions made by the author was that hazardous air pollutants are generated by animal feeding operations. We can all agree that feeding operations often have a unique odor, but there is little or no evidence that air from these operations is any more hazardous than the air of any downtown metropolitan area. In fact, the EPA has found it difficult to detect hazardous air pollutants associated with animal production operations that are currently being monitored (Glinianaia, S.V., 2004. Environmental Health Response 112(14):1365).
In her study, Dr. Sneeringer uses the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) reported estimate of $6.2 million for the value of a human life to estimate that hazardous pollution associated with increases in confined animal feeding operations between 1982 and 1997 cost the United States $21.7 billion. These are very significant and compelling numbers that grab the attention of the media and policymakers, and invoke the emotions of the general population. Studies such as this - for these reasons - have the potential to drive overregulation based on emotion, not on fact. Care must be taken to better define the target and consider not only the true impact, but also consider the negative economic and societal impact of overregulation.
The take-home message from this research is that no matter the strength of the evidence, the EPA and other governmental and environmental groups are aggressively looking for tools and strategies to regulate animal agriculture on a human health basis. We at the Noble Research Institute anticipate continued environmental regulation and legislative pressure on animal production. It is expected that confined animal feeding operations will be the initial target, be it human health or greenhouse gases concerns, but we caution that legislated regulation for confined feeding operations will eventually trickle down the production line to farm operations.
The primary tool for combating this movement is public education. We at the Noble Research Institute will continue to work with cooperators to develop sustainable farming operations that support the health of both people and the environment, as well as disseminate the information necessary to combat the ignorance that leads to unproductive legislation on the American farmer.