Factory Farming in America, Part 3: The Environmental Impact of Factory Farming
By Traci Hobson
Most are aware that littering is bad for the environment or that driving gas guzzling SUVs causes more pollution than fuel efficient modes of transportation, but, what many may not consider is that when it comes to helping the planet, what is on a person’s plate matters, too. Though Americans make up about five percent of the world’s population, we consume more than 15 percent of the world’s total meat supply! Americans eat about eight ounces of meat per day, which is roughly twice the global average. This adds up to almost 200 pounds of meat consumed per person, per year.
So how does this affect the environment, one might ask? At every step of the livestock production process, Americans’ meat and dairy consumption is negatively impacting the planet.
Factory farming animals consume an extraordinary amount of natural resources, including land, water, and crops.
Since the shift from pasture-grazed livestock toward industrialized farming of “food animals”, the percentage of our natural resources used to support these factory farmed animals is ever-increasing. America’s land is being depleted by deforestation, inordinate amounts of water are being used to support livestock and poultry production, and a majority of the country’s crops are fed to animals rather than people.
Land: In the US, more than 260 million acres of forest have been cleared to create cropland. The cropland is used grow grain fed to farmed animals. Of all the agricultural land in the US, 80 percent is used to raise animals for food and grow grain to feed them; this is almost half the total land mass of the lower 48 states! Worldwide, a staggering 30% of the Earth’s land mass is used to raise animals for food; this includes land used for grazing and to grow feed crops.
Water: Factory farms use massive amounts of water. It is estimated that nearly half of all the water in the US is used in the process of raising animals for food. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat and only 25 gallons to produce one pound of wheat. It takes over 4,000 gallons of water to produce a day’s food for one meat-eater compared to 300 gallons for a day’s food for a person who eats a plant-based diet.
Crops: In the US, as much as 70 percent of the grain harvest and 80 percent of the corn harvest are fed to livestock and poultry. Approximately two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, according to Rosamond Naylor, an associate professor of economics at Stanford University. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of meat. Throughout the world, cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people – more than the entire human population on Earth.
Factory farmed animals produce an incredible amount of waste, polluting the air and the water supply.
Small farms were once able to manage the waste that farm animals produced by recycling manure and using it as fertilizer. Factory farms, on the other hand, are not capable of using the amount of waste that they generate to support farming operations. Large scale commercial livestock and poultry operations produce an estimated 500 million tons of manure each year. This is more than three times the sewage produced by the entire US human population annually! Other examples include:
• Many cattle feedlots are located in rural communities, and the large number of cattle contained in the lots produce as much waste as some of America’s largest cities.
• In Iowa alone, hog factories and farms produce more than 50 million tons of excrement annually.
• The 240,000 dairy cows in Merced County, California produce about ten times as much waste as the metropolitan city of Atlanta, Georgia.
• The approximately 466,600 beef cattle on feedlots in Deaf Smith County, Texas produce about four times as much manure as the human sewage output of the greater Los Angeles area.
The untreated waste is stored in giant pits or lagoons, or it may be applied to cropland at excessive rates. Either way, it sinks into groundwater and runs off into rivers and streams. This process of waste disposal poses significant air and water pollution issues for communities that are home to factory farming facilities and globally.
Additionally, livestock waste emits toxic gases such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia into the air. Roughly 80 percent of ammonia emissions in the US come from animal waste. Nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams are attributable to animal agriculture, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA reports that livestock and poultry excrement has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states. For instance, when 25 million gallons of putrid hog urine and feces spilled into a North Carolina river in 1995, 10 -14 million fish died as an immediate result. In 2008, a dairy farm in Minnesota released so much hydrogen sulfide gas that the state evacuated nearby residents and declared the farm a public health hazard. In 2009, a Maryland dairy operation reimbursed the county and a local city over $250,000 for providing emergency water supplies, testing, and other costs after a 2008 manure spill polluted the town’s water supply. The spill of 576,000 gallons of manure contaminated the water supply and caused it to be shut down for two months. At a dairy farm in Indiana in 2010, a manure lagoon liner detached, floated to the surface, and became inflated with decomposing manure gasses. The manure bubbles were large enough to be seen from satellite photos. The operator said he could not afford to repair the liner. After the county shut down local roads and banned school buses from the area because of the risk posed by potential noxious gas releases or explosions, Indiana officials deflated the bubbles.
These problems are not rare, and they go hand in hand with factory farming. However, though the EPA remains aware of these issues, the agency has been slow to address them. When the EPA has acted, the fines assessed were so low that they failed to act as a deterrent. It is often cheaper for operators to take the risks and pay the fines, if and when assessed, than to change the way they do business. For example, in 2009, an Iowa cattle operation agreed to pay $25,000 to settle allegations that it had violated the Clean Water Act by allowing manure and wastewater to run off into tributaries of the Floyd River.
In 2010, the EPA settled a lawsuit filed by environmental groups who argued that the agency needs to pay closer attention to the effects of the livestock industry on waterways. In the settlement, the EPA agreed to propose a rule that will require concentrated animal feeding operations to report detailed data to the agency every five years, including information on the type and capacity of manure storage facilities, quantity of manure generated, available land acreage to apply manure, and how excess manure is disposed of. “Believe it or not – the EPA and the public don’t have this basic information for thousands of factory farms because historically many have been able to avoid pollution control requirements,” said John Devine, an attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. The EPA announced the proposed rule “that would require concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to submit basic operational information to EPA so the agency can more effectively carry out its CAFO permitting programs on a national level and ensure that CAFOs are implementing practices to protect water quality and human health” in 2011. The public comment period recently closed and the rule has not been finalized.
It is not surprising that major environmental watchdogs, including World Watch, the Sierra Club, the Pew Commission, and Greenpeace, have singled out factory farms as one of the biggest polluters on the planet. There is a scientific consensus that animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to global warming, exceeding even the transportation industry in its production of greenhouse gases.
The current methods of food production in America are clearly detrimental to the health of the planet on multiple levels. British economist and top global warming guru Lord Stern of Brentford posits that the best way to save Mother Earth is to give up meat, as he told UK's The Times. "Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world's resources. A vegetarian diet is better." A 2008 New York Times article reported that “if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan - a Camry, say - to the ultra-efficient Prius.” Perhaps the greenest thing consumers can do is consider revising their grocery lists.