Indigenous Scholar Shares How Factory Farms Harm Poor Communities

David Shane Lowry is an associate professor of anthropology at Biola University and a member of the Lumbee tribe. His family has lived near large-scale chicken factory farms (also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs) for decades.

As an anthropologist, Lowry has a unique perspective on how factory farming is woven into the fabric of injustice that harms indigenous, Black, and brown communities in North Carolina—and elsewhere.


Mercy For Animals’ video team traveled to Lumbee tribe indigenous sovereign land in Robeson County, North Carolina, to speak with Lowry. Robeson County is one of the USDA’s counties of persistent poverty, and at least 75 percent of its residents are Native American, Black, Latinx, or immigrants.

Factory farms are often built in low-income communities of color. These farms pollute the environment, posing serious issues of public health and environmental justice for nearby residents. Robeson County is besieged by contamination from many heavily polluting industries and high rates of heart and lung disease. The people of Robeson County suffer far higher rates of cancer than those in other areas of North Carolina and the United States as a whole. Lowry said:
Chicken farms and corporate husbandry operations and also, if I can include this, oil pipelines—all of these things are not equally dispersed between all settler communities. They actually continue to be pushed into and on top of indigenous Native American communities.
According to Lowry, industrial chicken farms are becoming more and more present in the community—and they’re getting bigger. CAFOs are buying up huge plots of land and building large, brightly colored chicken houses near major roads. Under North Carolina law, poultry CAFOs are “deemed permitted,” meaning no permit applications or environmental impact studies are required to build even the largest facilities.

Nitrogen and phosphorus from poultry farm waste pollute rivers and streams, causing algae blooms that starve the water of oxygen and lead to massive fish kills. Lowry shared that researchers had tested the soil in Robeson County over time and found a connection between poor soil and water quality and the increasing presence of CAFOs.

In addition, CAFO waste attracts insects. Lowry spoke with numerous local educators about the number of flies in classrooms. In one school, nearly every classroom had a fly swatter hanging on the wall, which demonstrates that the negative impact of local CAFOs is not only widespread but long term, affecting children’s ability to learn.

To demand meaningful changes in our food system, we must understand how systemic racism has thrived in the meat industry and how animal agriculture still benefits from this discrimination. Lowry said:
It’s easy, if you look at just the geography of how all this is set up, to connect this community—which is Robeson County in the Lumbee Indian community—with communities in the Dakotas, with communities in California. What is happening in Robeson County is connected to anthropogenic harm all over the United States and, quite honestly, all over the world.
By choosing equitably produced plant-based foods, we can stand up for vulnerable communities, as well as spare countless animals a lifetime of misery. Learn more about plant-based eating by downloading our FREE Vegetarian Starter Guide today.
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