Raising a Stink: The Problem with Factory Farms
Today we present another installment in Minnesota 2020’s series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. It’s part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.
Next time you sit down to a meal, look closely at the food on your plate. Do you know how it got from a farm to your table? What about how it was produced? Not only does the food you eat affect your body, but its production also affects the world around you. In the U.S., where factory farming is rapidly spreading, it’s important that we know where our food comes from and what impact it has on human and ecological health.
While the standard practices on large factory farms pose risks on many levels, I find methods of manure management particularly worrisome.
Factory farms—also known as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOS)—involve raising livestock in confinement at high density. In the United States, these industrial farms produce three times as much waste each year as the entire country’s human population, according to sustainable-lifestyle magazine Mother Earth News.*
According to Food and Water Watch, “Tens of thousands of animals [in Minnesota] can generate millions of tons of manure annually, which pollutes water and air and can have health repercussions on nearby communities.”
Animal manure, however, is much more loosely regulated and handled than human waste, according to the Mother Earth article cited above. I believe that we need to tighten regulations to provide better management of animal manure from CAFOs.
On factory farms, manure is often stored in massive waste lagoons. These lagoons can leak or overflow, sending dangerous microbes, nitrate pollution, and drug-resistant bacteria into our waterways.
Manure applied (or frequently over-applied) to cropland—especially if the ground is frozen during cold Minnesota winters—often ends up running off into aquatic systems.
Traces of manure can get into groundwater used for drinking and into recreational areas used for fishing, swimming, and other outdoor activities. This poses serious health risks to our communities, as microbes associated with livestock include dangerous bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli, according to Mother Earth
These germs spread much more easily in crowded and cramped CAFO conditions. Livestock producers have responded with antibiotics; however, this increases health risks to humans because the longer antibiotics are administered, the more antibiotic-resistant microbes become, leaving us exposed to stronger, more resistant germs.Poor manure management also leads to environmental degradation. Animal waste contains nitrates, which can cause algal blooms in aquatic ecosystems. As the algae decompose, high levels of organic matter deplete the water of oxygen, killing fish and other organisms. This process is called eutrophication.
Additionally, research at several universities and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shown that hormones used to promote tissue growth and faster maturation of factory-farmed animals are found in manure and may cause mutations and alterations in the reproductive organs of some species of fish.**
In Minnesota, manure from hog farming poses the greatest threat to our health. Food and Water Watch reports that there are forty percent more factory-farmed hogs than people in our state. The more than 679,000 hogs on factory farms in McLeod County produce twice as much untreated manure as the sewage from the Houston, Texas metropolitan area.
Despite the risks associated with feedlot manure, however, the state of Minnesota has actually relaxed regulation of waste from factory farms in recent months. What makes this all the more appalling is that it has been done behind closed doors.
The Environment Finance Bill was the result of state government shutdown negotiations this summer. The bill previously failed to pass normal legislative committee processes due to strong public opposition, but because the negotiations were private, the public was unable to see the final product until the bill had already been passed.
What does this final bill entail?
The Environment Finance Bill lowers environmental standards for feedlots with over 1,000 animal units. Previously, these large factory farms were required to get a Clean Water Act National Pollution Elimination System (NPDES) permit to prevent pollutants from entering bodies of water.
Under the new bill, this requirement no longer exists if the feedlot operator claims that they will not discharge manure into state waters.An operator’s promise cannot guarantee that the waste will not end up in our beautiful lakes and rivers.
These actions by the state of Minnesota do not act in the interest of the general public. The secrecy with which the Environment Finance Bill passed is underhanded and, in my mind, bordering on undemocratic.
We need to reform our food system in a way that is economically sustainable, but cutting large companies breaks on pollution regulations is not the way to do so. Even if we cannot control the actions of our legislators, we can take personal action to reduce the negative impact of CAFOS.
The best way to do this is to stop economically supporting their operations. Take the time to learn where your food comes from. Buy local meat to support small farms and avoid big-name meat brands. Reduce your meat consumption. The impact you have is small but important. As a conscious consumer, the influence of your food choices extends far beyond your dinner table.
Kelly Hardin is a sophomore, majoring in international studies; she’s also a member of Macalester’s Dean's List.
*Sayre, L. (2009). The Hidden Link between Factory Farms and Human Illness. Mother Earth News, (232), 76-83. Retrieved from EBSCO host.
**This study was a joint project of the University of FA, St. Mary’s College of MD, the University of NE, the EPA, and the Tufts University School of Medicine.