There Isn’t A Comprehensive Map Of CAFOs, But Computers Could Change That


By Madelyn Beck, WILL Radio-Illinois Public Media

Harvest Public Media / April 09, 2019


There are thousands of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, around the United States, but no one knows the exact number.


Two Stanford University professors published research this week in the journal Nature Sustainability, saying there’s an easy way to count CAFOs: Teach a computer to do it for them.


Environmentalists have long been concerned about the rise of CAFOs, which can produce massive amounts of meat and waste. But CAFOs are a necessity for farmers who want to produce cheap meat.


In 2007, environmental groups went after the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, alleging it wasn’t doing its job regulating animal confinements and asking the federal government to take over. To appease the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and maintain oversight, Iowa’s DNR agreed to increase state inspections and find out just how many CAFOs there were in the state.


After more than three years of searching through satellite images, the department said it found more than 5,000 animal confinement facilities beyond what it previously knew about. More than a thousand of those may have needed state regulatory oversight.


Finding CAFOs is the first step in establishing environmental oversight, according to Stanford’s Daniel Ho, who worked with PhD student Cassandra Handan-Nader on the research.


“We actually make this process of identifying CAFOs significantly easier by using some of the rapid advances in machine learning that have occurred over the past five years,” he said...