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Hog Wars: Part 4

The Environment
(. . . and factory farms)

by Patty Cantrell, Rhonda Perry & Paul Sturtz
Columbia, Missouri

This article is taken from the Missouri Rural Crisis Center publication "Hog Wars: The Corporate Grab for Control of the Hog Industry and How Citizens are Fighting Back". (Also see: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 )

Waste

Factory-scale, confinement livestock operations stick local residents with industrial-size messes while corporate executives count their cash in distant offices. Consider this:

  • ·One hog excretes nearly 3 gallons of waste per day, or 2.5 times the average human's daily total. A 6,000-sow hog factory will produce approximately 50 tons of raw manure a day. (Livestock Waste Facilities Handbook by the Midwest Plan Service.)
  • An operation the size of Premium Standard Farms (PSF) in northern Missouri, with more than 2 million pigs and sows in 1995, will generate five times as much sewage as Kansas City, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Factory farms are, however, under no obligation to treat their city-size wastes other than to spread it over farmland. Studies of typical application rates show plant life cannot absorb the amount of nutrients the factories expel. Nearby rural towns with a few hundred residents, on the other hand, must raise money regularly to install costly municipal sewage treatment systems. The contrast is appalling to CAFO neighbor Martha Stevens of Harrison County, Mo.: "I can't see how a few people are a health hazard and 2 million hogs aren't."

Hog factories are not required to post bonds to cover clean-up costs should they fail. The state-estimated cost to clean up a typical 25 million-gallon lagoon is $100,000.

PSF has more than 150 lagoons (each holds 25 million gallons of slurry in a four- or five-acre space). The prospect of taxpayers getting stuck with acres of livestock sludge is real. Ask the taxpayers of Cherokee County, Iowa. A beef and pork confinement feedlot that went out of business there in 1980 left behind three leaky lagoons. The largest pit is a 17-acre lagoon with four to eight feet of solid manure at its bottom that will cost at least a half-million dollars to clean "assuming someone would be interested in buying it," says the county sanitarian.

Odor/Gases/Air

Some people who don't live near the swine cities say they can take it, but most wouldn't have it. It's much more than just odor. The mist that permeates the homes and skin of thousands of people who live next door to these "farmers" commonly contains dangerous levels of such noxious gases as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and methane.

A citizen's test in Renville Co., Minnesota found that one-quarter of 32 tests taken near several manure lagoons exceeded Minnesota air quality standards for hydrogen sulfide. This poisonous gas, usually associated with a "rotten egg" smell, has caused symptoms such as nausea, headaches, blackout periods and vomiting. (Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota.) Clouds of manure mist come and go with the wind, but the odor itself sinks into human tissue, clothing and furnishings and is released slowly over time, according to Duke University's Susan Schiffman.

People living downwind from hog factories suffer a variety of psychological and physiological problems, such as depression, frequent vomiting and respiratory complications. More than half of the people living within two miles of mega-hog sites reported an increase in allergies, sinus infection, nasal blockage and a lack of energy, according to a Family Farms for the Future (Putnam Co., Mo.) survey.

Odors can be nearly as intense four miles downwind as they are at the site. Residents in northern Missouri around PSF's facilities report odors have traveled 15 miles.

Concentrations of gases inside confinement buildings endanger workers and animals and corrode equipment. The American Lung Association, 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.

Odors that invade homes, sicken families and chase away visitors also destroy property values. Julie Jansen of Olivia, Minn., lives within one mile of two hog farms and says that the CAFOs have destroyed her family life and her home-based business: "We keep the windows and doors shut, the air conditioner running, but the smell gets in the carpet, the curtains, the furniture. When it gets really bad, we spend the night in a motel. I've had to close my day-care business because nobody wants to bring their children here. We'd like to sell the house and move, but who would buy it?"

In Platte County, Mo., a fast-growing suburban area, "real estate sales have ground to a halt," says Sally Radmacher, a local resident.

Water/Soil

Whereas family farmers use their land to raise crops, livestock and families, factory farms see the soil as a place to dump manure. With mountains of manure to dispose of, companies' over-application of animal waste can become routine: one Missouri DNR audit in December 1995 cited PSF for rates that frequently exceeded permitted levels.

The manure slurry of factory farms is full of heavy metals like copper, nickel and manganese because the animals do not digest all that is in their feed as growth supplements. Spreading large amounts of these metals regularly over fields is dangerous. "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." But that's not the end of it. 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, make drinking water smell bad and taste worse and, in some cases, release algal toxins that can cause gastroenteritis.

"Heavy metals won't break down," says Terry Spence, who has monitored the water around a neighboring Premium Standard Farms' facility. "The limit for manganese, for example, is 50 parts per liter. But it has run 170 times that" in the local stream.

Hog wastes contain parasites, bacteria and viruses, including salmonella, campylobacter, e. coli, cryptosporidium, giardia, cholera, streptococcus and chlamydia. Concentrations of hog manure in leaky lagoons increases the probability of drinking water contamination. Cryptosporidium and giardia, for example, resist conventional chlorination. These traveling pathogens come not only from leaky lagoons but also from on-site burial of thousands of dead pigs, according to the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service's swine odor task force.

Nine hog factory lagoon spills within just five months in 1995 brought home to Missourians the ecological and human health dangers that industrial livestock operations pose. The death toll for that spate of Missouri spills came in at a quarter of a million fish and 25 miles of stream habitat.

Other states reported spills and kills, too. In the first nine months of 1995 alone, four states reported a total of 16 spills.

Lagoon leaks are less visible but perhaps more common and threatening. Factory farm operators claim that the manure slurry commonly stored in earthen pits creates its own seal as solids sink to the bottom. But several scientific tests suggest that's not the case.

  • Tests of lagoons at three Carroll's Foods hog farm sites near Pendleton, N.C., since 1993 indicate significant seepage. Ammonia nitrogen levels in the groundwater near one site jumped from 2.5 parts per million to a high of 178 parts per million. County and state regulators have not been able to do anything about it because the operations are exempt from groundwater regulations.
  • A North Carolina State University study of 11 lagoons that were seven years or older found that half leaked moderately to severely. Of those lagoons with "little" seepage, nitrate levels in groundwater were three times the allowable level. The same study checked test wells installed in three new lagoons. Two began leaking immediately.
  • The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates the average rate of leakage is 500 gallons per lagoon acre per day.

Hog factories are water hogs. They not only degrade water quality but deplete water quantity. Staggering volumes of water are needed to operate the new mega-farms, and they'll stop at nothing to get it.

To understand what this industry's resource consumption means to Missouri, let's look at the numbers. A typical Premium Standard 80,000- head finishing unit consumes over 200,000 gallons of water per day. That's over 73 million gallons per year for just one complex. Now multiply that number by Premium Standard's 17 complexes. Then add the over 365 million gallons per year at their slaughter plant. And the water consumption at their feed mills, concrete plants and the pumpdown operations at 127 lagoons. Now, multiply that number by other corporate swine cities.

Yes, most of the world's surface area is water but only a miniscule percentage is fit for human consumption. So when Murphy Farms in Vernon County, Mo., takes a deep drink of the underground aquifers, it's no wonder neighbors are affected. A 125-foot drop in well levels has been confirmed. "There are 17 wells in this area that have dried up," reports neighbor Gene Andersen. "And my cattle won't drink the water from the creek that comes across my land out of Murphy's,'' Andersen says. "The deer won't drink it either; they drink from my pond. All the aquatic animals are gone."

In Dresden, Missouri, 45 of 62 wells studied experienced problems due to one Tyson Foods well. One resident reported he had to drill 520 feet down to alleviate his water quantity problems, though it has done nothing to eliminate problems with odor and taste.

Food Safety Concerns

Consumers spend only 10 percent of their disposable income on food. Of that 10 cents on the dollar, only one penny makes it back to the farmer's bottom line. The other 90 percent goes to processors, packagers and advertising.

Further industrialization of production agriculture will squeeze the farmer's last penny and make no difference in the cost of food.

Unfortunately this so-called "cheap food" should come with a warning label. Residues of the carcinogenic drug Sulfamethazine, for example, are commonly found in hog carcasses at U.S. packing plants. Says one Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official: "Residues from the use of Sulfamethazine in swine have been a serious problem for both government and industry."

One common antibiotic, Mecadox, has a withdrawal period of 70 days because of potential residues. This presents a segregation challenge for factories who use Mecadox as a daily feed additive meant only for piglets.

The large-scale indiscriminate use of antibiotics in animals invariably leads to antibiotic resistance in bacteria that cause disease in humans, says the U.S. Center for Disease Control. This is because hogs and people use similar-type antibiotics. Also, the use of antibiotics for weeks at a time for non-therapeutic reasons like growth promotion can exacerbate the situation, writes Dr. Stuart Levy of the Tufts Medical School. (The Antibiotic Paradox: How Miracle Drugs are Destroying the Miracle, 1992.)

The USDA is ill-prepared to keep up with testing for the thousands of known and potentially dangerous drugs sold cheaply in mass quantities.

Consumers can help break the lock factory farming corporations have on domestic and, increasingly, international markets. Because of public concern about environmental degradation and the mistreatment of animals, some supermarkets in Minnesota and Wisconsin have pulled Premium Standard Farms' pork from their meat case. "People are beginning to understand there's a big difference between pork raised outside on a family farm and pork raised in complete confinement where they're shot up with drugs," says Maylene Johnston, a farmer in Breckenridge, Missouri. "There's a market for pork raised in a healthy manner but getting into those markets is tough because the big guys control the marketing channels."

MRCC is one group that has taken on that challenge. Its Patchwork Family Farms project is a marketing endeavor to stop factory farms at the grocery store and keep family farmers on the land. Patchwork is a group of family farmers raising pork the natural way without routine antibiotics or growth stimulants. Their hogs have access to fresh air, sunshine and quality feed. Patchwork producers follow standards which include environmental responsibility and stewardship of the land. Patchwork pork is sold at farmers' markets, supermarkets and consumer cooperatives.

Animal Welfare

If corporations had to raise animals humanely, factory farms would not exist. As corporate executive L.J. Taylor put it to producers in National Hog Farmer magazine: "The breeding sow should be thought of, and treated, as a piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine." The results are cruel.

The abuse starts with the breeding sow. Locked in a narrow metal gestation crate no bigger than a toy box, she is restrained for her four-month pregnancy. As reported by the Animal Welfare Institute: breeding sows, which normally prepare clean nests and protect their offspring, suffer a constant state of distress by being nearly immobilized for years.

They are forced to live and give birth in these cramped cages. Piglets are removed from their mother in a matter of days, far less than the normal nursing period. They too are rounded into crowded and barren pens that are so stressful, they resort to unnatural behaviors like constant bar-biting and nervous tics. No factory farm hogs, young or old, ever see straw or other bedding. They live most of their lives on metal or concrete floors.

Hogs cannot survive the pollution and confinement of factory farms without routine doses of antibiotics and other drugs. According to the National Academy of Sciences: "The widespread use of antibiotics (in confinement livestock production) has reinforced a trend not to manage for disease prevention, but rather to accept the costs of antibiotic feeding as a routine production expense." This system is a far cry from family farmers who see their livestock as an integral part of a sustainable farming system.

Also see:

  • Part 1 - Missouri was corporate agriculture's dream state
  • Part 2 - An unprecedented family farm-environmentalist alliance takes hold
  • Part 3 - Democracy from the state government and responsibility from the mega-corps

Published in In Motion Magazine December 6, 2001


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