The Impact of Factory farms on the Environment

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The Impact of Factory farms on the Environment

The informal term “factory farming” refers to any intensive commercial form of agriculture that employs extreme growing techniques (usually with heavy use of agrichemicals and veterinary drugs) to produce the greatest output in the least space, and at the lowest unit cost. Although the term occasionally refers also to intensive crop monocultures, for the purpose of this article it will refer exclusively to meat and dairy enterprises which meet the above criteria.

Many people today are aware that “factory” farmed meat and dairy are not good for their health due to the vast quantities of antibiotics and other drugs used. That, along with the over-crowded and inhumane conditions in which the animals are kept, appals those who are concerned for the well-being of animals – and how can we not be when we learn, for example, that “309-330 cows per hour come by on the "disassembly" line, and there are many who are still fully conscious with eyes wide open when skinned and cut apart. They die literally piece by piece”.[i]

“The process of rearing farm animals in the US has changed dramatically from the family farms of yesteryear. This reality, coupled with the exemption of farm animals from laws that forbid cruelty to animals, has produced a heartbreaking situation. More animals are subjected to more tortuous conditions in the US today than has ever occurred anywhere in world history. Never before have the choices of each individual been so important.” John Robbins, The Food Revolution (2001)


The deplorable, overcrowded conditions at a chicken farm.

These things alone should be enough to draw the scorn of any sensible person. But there is more. Not many people know of the severe environmental damage caused by factory farms. These operations are actually among the most toxic and polluting enterprises in existence. Concentrated animal waste from factory farms pollute the water and soil, cause dust and odour problems for people living in their vicinities, and are responsible for unacceptably high water usage. This article will examine these issues.

Air Pollution

The manure mist that permeates the homes and skin of thousands of people who live near factory farms commonly contains dangerous levels of such noxious gases as hydrogen sulphide, ammonia and methane.[ii]

A citizen's test in Renville County, Minnesota found that one-quarter of 32 tests taken near manure lagoons exceeded Minnesota air quality standards for hydrogen sulphide. This poisonous gas, usually associated with a "rotten egg" smell, causes symptoms such as nausea, headaches, blackout periods and vomiting. Although clouds of manure mist come and go with the wind, the odour itself sinks into human tissue, clothing and furnishings and is released slowly over time.[iii]

Concentrations of gases inside confinement buildings endanger workers and animals and corrode equipment. The American Lung Association, in conjunction with the University of Iowa, has found that nearly 70 percent of swine confinement workers experience one or more symptoms of respiratory illness or irritation and that 58 percent suffer chronic bronchitis. Unlike other industry, however, factory farms are not subject to OSHA regulations.[iv]

Soil Pollution

Statistics - Excrement[v]:

Production of excrement by total US human population: 12,000 pounds/second

Production of excrement by US livestock: 250,000 pounds/second (including 25 pounds of manure per cow per day)

Sewage systems in US cities: Common

Sewage systems in US feedlots: None

Amount of waste produced annually by US livestock in confinement operations which is not recycled: 1 billion tons

Where feedlot waste often ends up: In our water

 
Factory farm waste-water output.

Factory farms routinely dump waste manure on the soil and with vast quantities of manure to dispose of, over-application of animal waste is routine. There are several problems associated with this.

Firstly, the manure slurry of factory farms is full of heavy metals because the animals do not digest all that is in their feed as growth supplements. Heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, copper and zinc are put into animal feed to help make animals grow faster. Animal waste is never treated to remove heavy metals. Once in the environment, heavy metals are almost impossible to get rid of because they do not decompose, and "Once there's a toxicity, you can't remove it," says soil scientist Fred Cox of North Carolina State University. "Plants won't grow there. The soil damage is permanent." [vi]

And that is not all. Runoff from the fields also flushes the metals, along with excessive nitrogen and phosphorus from the manure, into waterways and public drinking supply watersheds. Studies confirm that elevated levels of the heavy metals interfere with fish and wildlife reproduction. Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus also trigger overproduction of algae blooms, which can choke aquatic life, contaminate drinking water and, in some cases, release algal toxins that can cause gastroenteritis.[vii]

Additionally, hog wastes contain parasites, bacteria and viruses, including salmonella, campylobacter, e. coli, cryptosporidium, giardia, cholera, streptococcus and chlamydia.[viii] Concentrations of hog manure in leaky lagoons increases the probability of drinking water contamination. Cryptosporidium and giardia, for example, resist conventional chlorination. These travelling pathogens come not only from leaky waste lagoons but also from on-site burial of thousands of dead pigs, according to the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service.[ix]


Manure run-off with the accompanying soil degradation.

Water Usage

Statistics - Water:

Water needed to produce 1 pound of wheat: 25 gallons

Water needed to produce 1 pound of meat: 2,500 gallons

Cost of hamburger meat if water used by meat industry was not subsidized by US taxpayers: $35/pound

When water shortages occur, citizens are often requested to not wash cars, water lawns and to use low-flow shower heads. However, cutting back on meat consumption would save much more water given that the water required to produce just ten pounds of steak equals the water consumption of the average household for a year. [x]

About 70% of the water used in the 11 western states is dedicated to the raising of animals for food.

Consider then that the Ogallala Aquifer, (the largest underground lake in the world and source of fresh water beneath an area from Texas to South Dakota, and Missouri to Colorado) is estimated to run dry in 30 to 50 years.[xi] Consider that 20 percent of the world's population in 30 countries face water shortages.[xii]

Water Pollution

On June 21, 1995, 25 million gallons of putrefying hog urine and faeces spilled into the New River in North Carolina, when a "lagoon" holding 8 acres of hog excrement burst. 10 – 14 million fish were killed as an immediate result.[xiii]

 
A “lagoon” at a pig farm.

These spills, more or less severe, happen several times a year throughout the country, but rarely make it into the media. Indeed, when one considers the sheer quantities of animals slaughtered for food in the US, such incidents seem inevitable:

Number of cows and calves slaughtered every 24 hours in the US: 90,000

Number of chickens slaughtered every minute in the US: 14,000

Food animals (not counting fish and other aquatic creatures) slaughtered per year in the US: 10 billion- more than one and a half times the world’s entire human population.

All of these facts, when combined with the incredible suffering and pain caused to animals in the daily holocausts of factory farm environments, as well as the detriments to our own health when eating animals treated in this way, really do show factory farming to be an entirely unacceptable form of exploitation and profiteering, to which we must all say “No!”

By Toby Köberle
Melbourne, July 2005.

Endnotes

[i] Transcript of New York Times full page ad published June 22, 2001 detailing the horrors of our modern-day slaughterhouses.
[ii] The Environment (. . . and factory farms), Patty Cantrell, Rhonda Perry & Paul Sturtz
[iii] ibid
[iv] ibid
[v] All statistics (italics) compiled from The Food Revolution by John Robbins (2001), Diet for a New America by John Robbins (1987), Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet and the Rainforest Action Network.
[vi] The Environment (. . . and factory farms), Patty Cantrell, Rhonda Perry & Paul Sturtz
[vii] ibid
[viii] ibid
[ix] ibid
[x] Sources as v
[xi] ibid
[xii] UN's Statement on World Water Day, March 22, 1999
[xiii] As ii