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Q&A: David Kirby, author of 'Animal Factory'

David Kirby's book, "Animal Factory," exposes the dangers of factory farms. (James Rexroad)

David Kirby's timing looked perfect. His book, "Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment" (St. Martin's Press, 2010) was released just as Congress was holding hearings on legislation that would ban the use of antibiotics in livestock. A growing movement of consumers was demanding to know more about where their food came from.

But since the book hit the shelves in March, Kirby admits it has been harder than expected to get a serious conversation going about how to fix the problems caused by factory farming. Federal policies that support concentrated animal feeding operations, better known as CAFOs, are technical, and the politicians who support them are seemingly unmovable. "The subsidies at stake are huge. There are anti-competitive measures," he said. "It's an interesting story. I can't figure it out."

Over coffee on Wednesday, Kirby, an award-winning investigative reporter, made the case for why Americans, especially food lovers, should join the conversation. Edited excerpts follow.

-- Jane Black

How did writing this book affect what you eat?

I eat a lot less meat.

Want to expand on that?

Before I started working on the book, I would go to the supermarket and buy meat. I was completely ignorant about where my food came from. I knew that it wasn't Farmer Joe down the road. But I never put together the idea that if it weren't from there, it wouldn't be from a real farm somewhere. I pictured mechanization. But I didn't picture what was really going on.

And let's face it, you go to the store and buy farm-fresh eggs. There are pictures of cows on pasture in the dairy section. So I made decisions more on health than about the environment or animal welfare.

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People who pay attention to food are already vaguely uneasy about meat. But as we rev up for grilling season, it's understandable that they'd want to put those fears aside. What would you say to them as we approach Memorial Day?

The fact is that for almost everyone, there's going to be something about that animal's life that's going to offend you. It may be the actual conditions, the lack of fresh air, for example. Or it might be the denial of all kinds of things the animals should do but are not allowed to do.

Or it might be that you are worried about the noxious fumes, the ammonia, the methane and hydrogen sulfide. Ammonia can rise up from these waste lagoons and travel for miles and miles and be redeposited into a waterway where it feeds algae blooms and kills fish.

Or you might be worried about local communities and family farms that are being severely impacted by factory farms. We have a lot of debt and poverty and drug addiction and suicide in the most bucolic parts of the country because families can't earn a living any more. The old family lines of farmers are disappearing.

And then even if you don't care about the animals or the environment or rural communities, you'll want to think about the food you are eating and feeding to your family. It's not the things that are in the meat that shouldn't be there; it's the nutrients that are missing because the animals are raised in this way.

Of all the shocking statistics and stories in the book, what is the one that affected you most?

I visited 20 states. I saw things I never thought I would see. I smelled things I never thought I would smell in my life. But one night, I was at a small family farm in Illinois that raised pigs. Across the street was a pig factory.

It was at night. The workers had gone home. And as soon as it got dark, you could hear the screams and the squealing and the crying. It was not like one pig over there. Like hundreds.

Did something happen?

No. This was just a night on a factory farm. Because the pigs get bigger and bigger and the pens don't. And they fight. It sounded like children being tortured. And it didn't stop. It was the most haunting and most tragic sound I've ever heard. And I think it was because it didn't stop. If there had been a commotion in the barn and they all started making noise, I might have forgotten about it. But this was arresting. That tells me these are really unhealthy animals, that there are too many animals and that they really are stressed out.

What would you like to see the government do?

Obama promised to do several things on the campaign trail and they are pretty conservative things. We need to rein in CAFOs and make it more difficult for them to operate like they are operating. We need to mandate that they give the animals more space. Prohibit antibiotic use; essentially, make what they do harder. The administration also needs to crack down on anti-competitve practices. These big companies, like Tyson, are monopolies, basically. And finally, we need to vastly increase the number of small processing plants.

There is the business and pollution side. The things we need to fight. And then on the other side we need to help small and family farmers get into the market and get distributed -- like taking away subsidies from big farmers and give them to the small farmers.

Lots of people have come to Washington and suggested that. But the fact is, it's going to be tough to wrest subsidies from big farmers to give to smaller, less powerful ones. That's not how it works in Washington.

I know. Obama tried to cut back on subsidies and the Democrats said no. But the administration is getting rid of some things. So, for example, if you don’t personally manage the farm, you can't get the subsidies anymore. And the USDA will begin sharing data with the IRS, to make sure that farmers are not getting around the income eligibility cap by breaking their operations into small corporations on paper so that they can remain eligible for subsidies.

Won't it also require some sort of cultural change?

Absolutely. It amazes me. We don't always buy the cheapest car or the cheapest clothes. And yet with food, you proudly drive right across town to a big-box store because something is on sale. We research consumer products. We research the gas we put in our cars because we want our cars to run well. We'll go online for hours and hours to find the best camera or even an environmentally friendly product. And then we go to the store and buy the cheapest food.

By The Food Section  |  May 6, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Books , Food Politics , Sustainable Food  | Tags: books, jane black, sustainable politics  
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