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The Impact of Extreme Weather on Factory Farms

August 12, 2021

As natural disasters become more frequent due to climate change, factory farms become threats to the environment and public health.

The relationship between extreme weather events and animal agriculture reveals the intersectional reality of climate and justice issues.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti and the southeastern United States. The hurricane resulted in widespread damage and deadly flooding. In North Carolina, the impact of Hurricane Matthew was intensified by the presence of factory farms.

North Carolina has one of the highest numbers of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) of any state in the US. As Hurricane Matthew descended on southeastern states, hundreds of factory farms in North Carolina faced inundation when several rivers flooded. In the midst of a natural disaster, thousands of pigs and millions of chickens drowned in waste-ridden flood waters. Contaminated flood waters went beyond designated factory farmland and drained into the ocean, harming marine life and nearby groundwater sources, subsequently hurting communities who rely on wells for water. Because waste from CAFOs is often kept in open pits, there are hardly any protections in place to stop the animal waste from entering surrounding areas during extreme weather events or through spraying it. Factory farms are a public health threat as unsanitary conditions and an excess of waste are detrimental to nearby water sources and harm the well-being of people in surrounding communities and beyond.

The flooding of factory farms following Hurricane Matthew was a symptom of a much larger problem. Animal agriculture contributes 15.4% of all greenhouse gas emissions, acting as one of many causes of the climate crisis. As the effects of the climate crisis become apparent during shifts in temperature and intensified natural disasters, factory farms become both vulnerable and threatening—vulnerable because of the sheer number of living beings and amount of waste that cannot be effectively controlled during unprecedented events, and threatening because of the risk of contaminating the health of land, water, and living beings.

The relationship between extreme weather events and animal agriculture reveals the intersectional reality of climate and justice issues. Vulnerable groups are more likely to face negative impacts of both the climate crisis and factory farming. If they can afford to, people would not choose to subject themselves to respiratory issues associated with living near factory farms. People would not choose to be in the middle of a natural disaster, but unhoused, low-income, and people of the global majority are often left behind as government responses fall short, as was the case during Hurricane Katrina. Wealthy and privileged groups have the means to escape adverse living conditions, whether it be through having a car to drive away in or buying homes far from factory farms, pollution, and other environmental risks.

Ending factory farming will not reverse the climate crisis. However, eliminating large-scale animal agriculture would mitigate a significant amount of emissions and prevent the continued contamination of surrounding air and waterways, both during extreme weather events and in general. In addition, the excessive amount of land used for factory farming could instead be used to provide all living beings with comfortable living conditions, through expanding renewable energy sources, building affordable housing, and providing space for both animals and humans to live full and happy lives.

Katie Yared is a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia. She is majoring in public policy and global sustainability with a minor in dance.