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Factory Farm Pollution (Water, Air, Chemicals)

Factory Farm Pollution

In today's world there are a host of serious environmental problems, and factory farming is one of the top causes of pollution.1 Scientific research has found that factory farming’s method of crowding and confining animals in warehouse-like conditions before killing them and mass-producing both “meat” from cows, pigs and chickens as well as dairy and eggs poses “an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment...”2 Yet, despite factory farming’s severe social and ecological costs, many governments promote this unsustainable industry to supply a growing global “meat” market that is projected to double by 2050.3

Factory Farm Pollutants

In general, there are two primary sources of factory farm pollution:

Waste from Animal Farms

Factory farms typically concentrate tens or hundreds of thousands of animals in one area, and a large operation can produce as much excrement as a small city.4 According to the EPA, “A single dairy cow produces about 120 pounds of wet manure per day, which is equivalent to the waste produced by 20–40 people. That means California’s 1.4 million dairy cows produce as much waste as 28–56 million people.”5 So, when taking into consideration tens or hundreds of thousands of animals, it's not surprising that this amounts to about 130 times more excrement than is produced by the entire human population every year.6 For centuries, farmers have used animal manure to fertilize their fields, but factory farms produce far more waste than the land can absorb,7 turning disposal of this toxic by-product into a big problem for both the agriculture industry and society. Liquidized Manure

Unlike human waste, animal excrement from factory farms is not processed as sewage—making it about 500 times more concentrated than treated human waste8 while leaving pathogens (like Salmonella and E. coli)9 and volatile chemicals intact.10 Even so, farmers typically spray some liquidized manure onto the food being grown for animals using giant sprinkler jets, and store the rest in open-air cesspools that can be as large as several football fields11 and hold millions of gallons of waste.12 However, neither of these dispersal techniques is environmentally safe or sustainable.

Agricultural Chemicals

Of all the agricultural chemicals applied in the U.S. every year, about 37 percent are used to grow crops for animals raised for food.13 Agricultural chemicals (or agrichemicals) refer to the wide variety of chemical products used in agriculture, such as pesticides (including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides), as well as synthetic fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics. Farmers spray agricultural chemicals onto food grown for animals in order to kill bugs, rodents, weeds, and other organisms that would otherwise supplant or eat the grain grown for the animals. They also apply these substances directly to animals’ skin, fur or feathers to combat insect infestation.14

However, many of the agricultural chemicals approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contain ingredients that are known carcinogens,15 while others cause severe allergies, birth defects and various health problems.16 In addition, those who grow food for animals rely heavily on synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers,17 and animal waste itself contains residues from the massive doses of non-therapeutic antibiotics and artificial growth hormones that animals are routinely fed or injected with to prevent illness and accelerate weight gain.18 Ultimately, the dangerous compounds found in agrichemicals end up as pollutants when wind and rain disperse them into the environment.

Environmental Impacts of Factory Farm Pollution

Factory farms dump tens of millions of tons of animal waste and agricultural chemicals into the environment every year—driving land, water and air pollution in the process:

Manure tanks

Land Pollution  Most food produced for animals is grown using a combination of untreated animal waste and synthetic fertilizers, both of which contain excessive amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals (such as zinc, copper, chromium, arsenic, cadmium, and lead).19 Even though most of these substances usually act as nutrients that nourish plants, industrial farmers overuse them to increase crop yields, and the remainder that cannot be absorbed into the earth—especially when it is already saturated after heavy rains20 —ends up polluting the soil, while degrading its water retention ability and fertility over time.21

In addition, U.S. farmers use 750 million pounds of some 20,000 different agricultural chemicals every year,22 and those that are used to kill insects and weeds that threaten crop yields end up poisoning natural ecosystems. Plus, as some weeds and bugs have developed resistance to these compounds over the years, chemists have continued to create ever more powerfully-toxic pesticides that are even worse for the environment.

The residues of these chemicals are found at every level of the food chain, and—through the process of bioaccumulation—become more concentrated the higher up the chain one looks. Meaning, in a system that runs the gamut from micro-organisms to humans, people who eat animal products get the highest dosage of toxins.

Water Pollution

The most common cause of water pollution in the U.S. is excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, the main source of which is fertilizer runoff23 that occurs when rain carries fertilizer into waterways. Runoff from both synthetic fertilizers and animal waste can poison drinking water and aquatic ecosystems, wreaking havoc on human health24 and wildlife.25 In the Southern U.S. , where there is an abundance of chicken factory farms, as many as one-third of all underground wells fall below EPA safe drinking water standards for nitrate, a form of nitrogen concentrated in chicken waste.26

Excrement from animal waste cesspools can also seep through the soil into nearby groundwater and overflow during storms.27 In 1995, for example, an eight-acre pig-manure lagoon in North Carolina ruptured, spilling 25 million gallons of untreated waste into the New River, which killed about 10 million fish. In California, the nation’s top dairy-producing state, officials found animal agriculture (specifically dairy operations) to be the largest source of nitrate pollution in more than 100,000 square miles of contaminated groundwater.28 Throughout the U.S., animal excrement from factory farms has contaminated groundwater in 17 states and polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states.29

Factory farm runoff also causes algal blooms that kill fish by depleting water of its oxygen, contributing to the formation of hundreds of “dead zones” worldwide where sea creatures cannot survive. The largest of these can be found in the Gulf of Mexico and is nearly the size of the State of New Jersey.30

Aquaculture (basically, the factory farming of fish in underwater enclosures) also makes a large contribution to water pollution, especially in the coastal mangrove swamps where these operations are typically located. Like land-based animal agriculture, intensive fish farming maximizes production efficiency by concentrating as many animals into the smallest amount of space possible—and also creates tons of untreated fecal waste that pollutes and de-oxygenates aquatic habitats.

Air Pollution

Various gases from animal waste are all major sources of factory farm air pollution,31 and particulate matter and bacterial toxins found in high concentrations at and around industrialized animal facilities have caused serious respiratory32 and cardiac disorders.33 The ammonia from waste slurry lagoons also breeds bacteria, which creates acid that evaporates and combines with nitrous oxide from fertilizers and industrial pollution to form nitric acid rain—which leaches nutrients from the soil, despoils forest habitats, and kills fish by releasing toxic minerals from the earth that flow into aquatic ecosystems. Even though agricultural fertilizer emissions are the leading cause of nitric acid rain (after motor vehicles and coal plants), they remain virtually unregulated in the U.S.34

In addition, animal agriculture is responsible for more than half of humanity’s total greenhouse gas emissions35 (largely created by using arable land to grow food for animals, animal belching and flatulence, and chemical emanations from manure). This includes 37 percent of anthropogenic (i.e., human-made) methane, and methane gas is 23 times more potent a climate change agent than carbon dioxide.36 Yet, despite factory farming’s leading role in the climate change crisis, the EPA does not currently have the authority to regulate the U.S. livestock industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.37

How You Can Help

Taking a stand against factory farming’s ecological destructiveness by becoming vegan is not only better for your health, but also saves the lives of animals. You can take environmental eating a step further by supporting organic farmers who don’t use agricultural chemicals and synthetic fertilizers. Eating organic can also improve your health—and helps reduce the number of farm workers exposed to toxic chemicals too.

This article was originally published on the Food Empowerment Project website

FEP

The Food Empowerment Project is a registered non-profit 501(c)(3) and was founded in 2006 by Lauren Ornelas. Food Empowerment Project seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one's food choices. They encourage healthy food choices that reflect a more compassionate society by spotlighting the abuse of animals on farms, the depletion of natural resources, unfair working conditions for produce workers, and the unavailability of healthy foods in low-income areas.


References:

[1] “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” The United Nations: Food and Agriculture Organization. 2006. http://www.afpf-asso.org/afpf/vie/vie/images/FAO-Livestock-Environment.pdf (11/13/10)

[2] “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.” Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. 2008. http://www.ncifap.org/bin/e/j/PCIFAPFin.pdf (11/13/10)

[3] Bittman, Mark. “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler.” The New York Times. 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html (11/13/10)

[4] “Facts about Pollution from Livestock Farms.” National Resources Defense Council. 2005. http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/ffarms.asp (11/13/10)

[5] “Notes from Underground,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Fall 2001. (11/13/10)

[6] Moore, Heather. “You Can’t Be a Meat-Eating Environmentalist.” American Chronicle. 2007. http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/24825 (11/13/10)

[7] “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.” Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. 2008. http://www.ncifap.org/bin/e/j/PCIFAPFin.pdf (11/13/10)

[8] “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.” Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. 2008. http://www.ncifap.org/bin/e/j/PCIFAPFin.pdf (11/13/10)

[9] “Facts about Pollution from Livestock Farms.” National Resources Defense Council. 2005. http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/ffarms.asp (11/13/10)

[10] “Pollution from Giant Livestock Farms Threatens Public Health.” National Resources Defense Council. 2005. http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/nspills.asp (11/13/10)

[11] Marks, Robbin. “Cesspools of Shame: How Factory Farm Lagoons and Sprayfields Threaten Environmental and Public Health.” National Resources Defense Council. 2001. http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/cesspools/cesspools.pdf (11/23/10)

[12] Motavalli, Jim. “The Case Against Meat: Evidence Shows that Our Meat-Based Diet is Bad for the Environment, Aggravates Global Hunger, Brutalizes Animals and Compromises Our Health.” E Magazine. 2002. http://www.emagazine.com/view/?142 (11/13/10)

[13] “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” The United Nations: Food and Agriculture Organization. 2006. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.htm (11/13/10)

[14] “Agricultural Chemical Usage Swine and Swine Facilities.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2006. http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/AgChemUseSwine/AgChemUseSwine-12-20-2006.txt (11/13/10)

[15] “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now.” The President’s Cancer Panel. 2010. http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf (11/13/10)

[16] Gellatley, Juliet, The Silent Ark. 1996, page 172

[17] Sullivan, Preston. “Sustainable Soil Management: Soil Systems Guide.” National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. 2004. http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/soilmgmt.pdf (11/13/10)

[18] Orlando, E., Kolok, A., et al. “Endocrine-Disrupting Effects of Cattle Feedlot Effluent on an Aquatic Sentinel Species, the Fathead Minnow.” Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 112(3). p. 346-52. March 2004. http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/members/2003/6591/6591.html (11/13/10)

[19] Li, Y., McCrory, F., et al. “A Survey of Selected Heavy Metal Concentrations in Wisconsin Dairy Feeds.” American Dairy Science Association, 2005. http://download.journals.elsevierhealth.com/pdfs/journals/0022-0302/PIIS0022030205729726.pdf (11/13/10)

[20] Hamilton, Keegan, “Craptastrophe: Record rainfall has created a dung dilemma for Missouri farmers.” The River Front Times. July 9, 2008. http://www.riverfronttimes.com/2008-07-09/news/craptastrophe-record-rainfall-has-created-a-dung-dilemma-for-missouri-farmers/ (11/23/10)

[21] Sullivan, Preston. “Sustainable Soil Management: Soil Systems Guide.” National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. 2004. http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/soilmgmt.pdf (11/13/10)

[22] Fano, Alix, Lethal Laws, 1997, page 108.

[23] Carpenter, Stephen. “Nonpoint Pollution of Surface Waters with Phosphorous and Nitrogen,” Issues in Ecology. September 1998. http://www.epa.gov/owow/watershed/wacademy/acad2000/pdf/issue3.pdf (11/13/10)

[24] Moore, Heather. “Tyson Fined $2M For Mucking Up Missouri River.” Care2.org. 2009. http://www.care2.com/causes/environment/blog/tyson-fined-2m-for-mucking-up-missouri-river/ (11/13/10)

[25] Royte, Elizabeth. “Transsexual Frogs: A popular weed killer makes some frogs grow the wrong sex organs. Your drinking water may have 30 times the dose they're getting.” Discover. February 2003. http://discovermagazine.com/2003/feb/featfrogs (11/13/10)

[26] Goodman, Peter S, “An Unsavory Byproduct,” Washington Post. August 1, 1999. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/daily/aug99/chicken1.htm (11/23/10)

[27] Moore, Heather. “Tyson Fined $2M For Mucking Up Missouri River.” Care2.org. 2009. http://www.care2.com/causes/environment/blog/tyson-fined-2m-for-mucking-up-missouri-river/ (11/13/10)

[28] “Facts about Pollution from Livestock Farms.” National Resources Defense Council. 2005. http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/ffarms.asp (11/13/10)

[29] Weeks, Jennifer. “Factory Farms.” CQ Researcher. January 12, 2007. http://prairierivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/factory-farms.pdf (11/13/10)

[30] Roach, John. “Gulf of Mexico ‘Dead Zone’ Is Size of New Jersey,” National Geographic News. May 25, 2005. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/05/0525_050525_deadzone.html (11/13/10)

[31] “Manure Gas Dangers Fact Sheet.” Farm Safety Association. 2002. http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/airpollution/footnotes/7_8_18.pdf (11/13/10)

[32] “Controlling Livestock Ammonia Emissions Could Reduce Harmful Atmospheric Particulates Blanketing US East Coast.” ScienceDaily. March 9, 2007. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070227105447.htm (11/23/2010)

[33] Brigham, K., and Meyrick, D. “Endotoxin and Lung Injury.” American Review of Respiratory Disease. May 1986. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3085564?dopt=Citation (11/13/10)

[34] Tennesen, Michael. “Sour Showers: Acid Rain Returns—This Time It Is Caused by Nitrogen Emissions.” Scientific American. June 21, 2010. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=acid-rain-caused-by-nitrogen-emissions (11/26/10)

[35] Goodland, R., and Anhang, J. “Livestock and Climate Change.” World Watch Institute. 2009. http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf (11/13/10)

[36] “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” The United Nations: Food and Agriculture Organization. 2006. http://www.afpf-asso.org/afpf/vie/vie/images/FAO-Livestock-Environment.pdf

[37] Bravender, R., Geman, B., et al. “Farm Interests Use EPA Spending Bill to Fight Climate Regs.” The New York Times. June 19, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2009/06/19/19greenwire-farm-interests-use-epa-spending-bill-to-fight-85048.html (11/13/10)

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