The consolidation of animal agriculture has allowed American agribusiness to produce huge amounts of cheap meat at an astonishing rate. But that access to cheap meat comes at a cost: millions of tons of manure and toxic pollutants, which can threaten some of America’s most important waterways.
According to a new report released by Environment America, five major animal agribusinesses — Tyson, JBS, Cargill, Smithfield, and Perdue — produce a combined 162,936,695 tons of manure every year. But it’s not just the manure that is threatening America’s waterways. The report also points to the huge volumes of grain that need to be grown to feed animals in factory farms, noting that the chemical-intensive farming often associated with the production of feed like corn and soy can also create runoff that threatens rivers, lakes, streams, and bays. Moreover, factory farms are some of the largest contributors to water pollution, dumping more toxic pollutants into waterways annually from their processing plants, by volume, than companies like ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical.
“Companies like Tyson and the others are turning farms into factories and ruining our rivers and bays in the process,” John Rumpler, clean water program director for Environment America, said during a press call. “We need clean water in America for so many different reasons. It’s vital to life in America. Unfortunately, corporate agribusiness is polluting America’s waterways in an incredible volume.”
This Meat Company Dumps More Pollution Into Waterways Each Year Than ExxonMobilClimate by CREDIT: Shutterstock Tyson Foods, one of the largest producers of meat in the world, is responsible for…thinkprogress.orgAccording to the EPA, agribusiness is the leading cause of pollution for more than 145,000 miles of rivers and streams, 1 million acres of lakes, and 3,000 square miles of bays and estuaries throughout the United States. Agricultural runoff — either from manure or from fertilizer used to grow animal feed — creates dead zones that stretch across the country, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.
In order to deal with the amount of waste produced by factory farms, operations often store manure in in-ground holes, called lagoons, or apply the waste to the ground as fertilizer. But because factory farms are dependent on packing the greatest number of animals into the smallest possible area, the waste that ends up spread onto fields is likely being applied to lands that are already saturated with animal waste from the operation itself or from another factory farm. In North Carolina, for instance, factory farms that produce hogs and chickens are often clustered tightly on the same watershed, making it difficult for fields to properly absorb the excess manure that is spread on the ground.
We need clean water in America for so many different reasons. It’s vital to life in America
Animal manure contains nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, which, when applied in proper amounts, can help crops grow. But when applied in excessive amounts — or when stored in unlined or improperly managed lagoons — these nutrients can leach into ground and surface water. There, they can fuel algal blooms that can release toxins into drinking water — like the algal bloom that shut down Toledo, Ohio’s water supply in the summer of 2014 — or oxygen-free dead zones that can be fatal to aquatic life.
Excessive application of animal waste can also cause nitrates, another nutrient, to seep into water sources. In Washington, a court case last year found that large industrial dairy operations in the eastern part of the state had directly contaminated groundwater, placing nearby communities’ health at risk. A high concentration of nitrates in drinking water can cause blue baby syndrome in infants, which reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Nitrates have also been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers.
The Environment America report suggests a few solutions to the problem of factory farm-driven water pollution. The first calls for moving away from an industrial-style production of animals, towards a small-scale approach. Terry Spence, a farmer with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, spoke of raising cattle on his 400-acre farm in north central Missouri, explaining that he allows his cattle to graze the land in a rotation, which keeps the ground from becoming too saturated with animal waste.
The report also calls for a ban on the over-application of manure, or the use of leaking or unlined lagoons for storage. Some states, like Maryland, have already begun to place limits on the amount of animal manure that can be applied to fields, in an effort to reduce pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. At the same time, however, chicken farming in Maryland is undergoing rapid expansion — some 200 additional large-scale chicken farms could be operational within the state before the end of the year.
“There are three elements of all life on this planet: clean water, clean air, and a safe and healthy food supply,” Spence said. “My hope is that every individual realizes where we are headed if things don’t change with regards to how these companies conduct their business.”