State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


How Hamburgers Pollute Our Water

Most Americans have no idea where the hamburgers and fried chicken we love come from, or what their environmental impacts are. But the way most meat in the U.S. is produced today has serious repercussions for our soil, air, and especially water. In the last 50 years, the number of family farms has declined sharply with the rise of industrial factory farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. CAFOs are large complexes where hundreds to thousands of animals are confined and raised in small areas, fed grain that is brought in and have no access to pasture. Developed to achieve economy of scale, CAFOs were made possible in part by government subsidies that kept corn prices low and created a surplus that was used to feed animals.

In 1920, the U.S. had 6.1 million farms, but by 2002, this number had dropped to 2.1 million as most meat production became concentrated in the hands of a few large companies. For example, in 2005, 83.5 percent of beef production was controlled by Tyson, Cargill, Swift, and the National Beef Packing Company; 64 percent of pork production was controlled by Smithfield, Tyson, Swift and Cargill; and Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson, Perdue and Sanderson Farms controlled 50 percent of chicken production by 2001.

CAFOS use antibiotics, hormones and other drugs to encourage and speed growth in animals, and are guilty of air, land and water pollution. The amount of concentrated waste they produce is mind-boggling. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists,  CAFOs produce over 300 million tons of waste per year—twice the amount of waste produced by the human population of the U.S! But whereas there are sewage treatment plants that deal with human waste, there is nothing analogous for animal waste. CAFO manure is stored in large manure lagoons and sprayed on nearby fields as fertilizer, but the land simply cannot absorb that much waste. The sprayfields run off and lagoons leak, run off, or sometimes fail, polluting both surface waters and groundwater. In 1995, an eight-acre hog waste lagoon in North Carolina burst, sending 25 million gallons of manure into the New River. The result was 10 million dead fish, and the closure of 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shell fishing. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd caused the collapse of five manure lagoons and the flooding of 47 others in North Carolina.

A 20-acre manure lagoon in Oregon. Photo credit: friendsoffamilyfarmers’ photostream

CAFO runoff contains antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, heavy metals such as zinc and copper (added to hog and poultry diets), chemicals, and microorganisms, which wind up in our surface and groundwater. Disease-causing pathogens like e-coli, and parasites such as cryptosporidium and giardia are transmitted through contaminated water. Nitrogen and phosphorus in the runoff eventually reach larger water bodies where they can produce algal blooms and subsequent dead zones where no living creatures can survive. Runoff from CAFOs are believed to have contributed to the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and other East Coast estuaries. Nitrates derived from the nitrogen is the most common agricultural contaminant found in well drinking water, and can cause methemoglobinemia (Blue Baby Syndrome) in infants and pregnant women. Moreover, toxic ammonia from animal waste can be transported in the air and cause algal blooms and fishkills in watersheds as far as 300 miles away.

CAFO meat production also uses vast amounts of water for the irrigation of animal food crops, cleaning of buildings and flushing of waste management systems. Most of this water comes from groundwater sources that are also needed for drinking water and that recharge slowly.

At this point, you’re probably wondering how CAFOs get away with polluting our water resources. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates CAFOs through the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Clean Air Act, which are supposed to monitor and control animal waste and pollution from factory farms. The CWA permits CAFOs to discharge waste into surface waters only according to strict rules of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program that regulates point source pollution, i.e. pollution from a single identifiable source such as a discharge pipe. The problem with CAFOs has been that runoff is often not considered a point source. And until recently, CAFO owners were allowed to determine for themselves if they were planning to discharge waste—many maintained that any waste leaked was not considered a discharge, so they weren’t subject to CWA regulations.

In May of this year, however, EPA reached a legal settlement with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance who had filed suit over a rule exempting thousands of factory farms from controlling water pollution from their animal waste. The settlement will require EPA to clarify when a CAFO is discharging waste or proposes to discharge. Until now, EPA has not known exactly where all the CAFOs are or how many animals they have, so the settlement also requires all CAFOs to submit detailed information to EPA about their location, their animal population and manure storage by May 2011. Collecting this information is the first step towards better regulation of water pollution by CAFOS.

CAFOs, with their economy of scale, appear to keep meat prices affordable. But we are actually paying much more for our meat through the hidden costs of subsidies, air, soil and water pollution, harm to local communities, and our public health.  The best solution is to eat less meat.

For more information about CAFOs’ environmental impacts, check out INFORM, Inc.’s “The Secret Life of Beef” (YouTube).

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John Row
13 years ago

Great work….m not gonna eat them again…..

Peter Davies
13 years ago

Its frightening where all this is going.

Without sounding too dramatic I think this approach to farming is bad for the environment, consumer health and the environment.

The only winner is the food price $

13 years ago

Amazing, and sadly it’s something few even think about. I’ve been trying to cut meat from my family’s diet for years, but they’re all boys, and crave it regularly. Thank you for the information; maybe this will help curb their meat appetites a bit.

13 years ago

good information,thank you