If you've so much as glanced once or twice at this blog, you've probably noticed me complaining about market-driven examples of false economy: practices and processes that keep prices artificially low, by ignoring high costs that arise predictably, in accordance with the perfectly straightforward causal relationship between bad decisions and bad results.
Factory farms are the best possible proof of this. Let's consider the problem with the H5N1 virus currently circulating in Asia, to use a favorite example. The Asian poultry industry relies on economies of scale to keep prices low; huge numbers of birds and pigs are crammed together into a tiny space, beak by jowl with huge numbers of low-paid workers. The result is exactly what you'd expect: a highly efficient laboratory for breeding new diseases. The flu costs every country on earth a lot of money in a normal year; H5N1, however, has the potential to kill tens of millions of people, destroy the economies and paralyze the infrastructures of any number of countries, and push an unstable world into total chaos. If you factored the cost of such events into the price of a single chicken raised on one of these farms, it'd cost hundreds - if not thousands - of dollars.
And now, here's a ghastly story about factory farming from Ohio. It explains how Ohio's factory farms have destroyed residents' health, poisoned the environment, broken federal laws, and destroyed independent family farms, without offering much of anything in return...except, of course, artificially low prices that take none of this devastation into account.
One of the biggest problems, oddly enough, is the practice of "ponding" incomprehensibly large amounts of manure:
Its presence in gargantuan quantities plays havoc with quality of life. Open lagoons of liquefied manure smell, and manure management glitches - associated exclusively with the dairies - are a constant threat to the water supply. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that three dairies - Schilderink, Nine Mornings and White Gold - have violated the Clean Water Act.Sounds about right to me. As it happens, factory farms contribute more to water pollution than all other American industries combined. Not surprising, when you consider that the typical hog farm produces as much solid waste per day as a small city, and doesn't have a sewage treatment system.
But we can't do anything differently. Hell, that'd cost money. And higher costs mean higher consumer prices. And if we get to a point where poverty-wage workers can't afford McDonald's burgers anymore, what are they supposed to eat instead? And if they starve, who's going to work in our slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants? Who's going to work with our open lagoons of liquefied manure? Obviously, our hands are tied.