Animal agriculture is switching to industrial practices to meet the needs of a growing world population and increase profits by replacing small to midsize animal farms with large, industrial-scale animal feeding operations (AFOs) that maximize the number of livestock confined per acre of land. Confinement of large numbers of animals in such operations can result in large discharges of animal feed- and waste-related substances (animal residuals) to the environment. The implications of waste management practices at AFOs for ecosystem viability and human health are very controversial. Potential effects of AFOs on the quality of surface water, groundwater, and air and on human health pose controversial issues.
II. Environmental Impacts
III. Lagoons and Public Health
IV. The Lagoons Harm Water Quality
V. The Hog Farm Controversy
VI. EPA Attempts at Regulation
VII. How Do We Control the Environmental Impacts?
Cattle, sheep, hogs, goats, and other animals have been raised for food all over the world for many years. Their environmental impacts are different based on the animal and the particular environment. Goats and hogs can have big impacts on ground cover and do long-term damage to sensitive ecotones such as mountains. Cattle take large amounts of grassland to grow to market maturation. Environmentalists often object to eating beef because the environmental footprint of cattle raising is so large. Some have argued that rain forest deforestation from slash-and-burn techniques is motivated by a desire to expand grazing ranges for cattle. Cattle production is big business. There are about 500,000 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), about 20,000 of which are regulated under the pollution laws. Three states—Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska—account for two-thirds of all feedlot production of beet cattle in the United States. Ranchers are important political constituencies in these states.
Cattle feedlot operations are financially dominated by large corporations. Industrial feeding operations have refined the process of raising calves to slaughter-ready weight with industrial production methods. These focus on cost-to-profit measures and often prioritize size, weight gain, and time to market.
Large feedlot operations have provoked controversy in their communities, focused on the environmental damage caused by waste runoff and air pollution. Feedlot waste can be found in a watershed up to 300 miles away, depending on the hydrology of that particular watershed.
Lagoons are pools of water used to treat waste from animal feeding operations. They are an older, low-volume, low-cost form of waste treatment but require maintenance. Waste treatment lagoons are often poorly maintained. They have broken, failed, or overflowed. They are prone to natural disasters like floods and hurricanes. When they overflow or break, the waste enters the watershed. Often the waste mixes with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff . This can have major environmental impacts.
Lagoons and Public Health
One major battleground of industrial feeding operations is the surrounding community. Gases are emitted by lagoons, including ammonia (a toxic form of nitrogen), hydrogen sulfi de, and methane. These are all greenhouse gases and pollutants. The gases formed in the process of treating animal waste are toxic and potentially explosive.
Water contaminated by animal manure contributes to human diseases, potentially causing acute gastroenteritis, fever, kidney failure, and even death. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, nitrates seeping from lagoons have contaminated groundwater used for human drinking water. Nitrate levels above 10 milligrams per liter in drinking water increase the risk of methemoglominemia, or blue baby syndrome, which can cause death in infants.
The Lagoons Harm Water Quality
There are also often cumulative effects from runoff within local watersheds because multiple large-scale feedlots cluster around slaughterhouses.
Watersheds far away are also affected by the atmospheric emission of gases from industrial feeding operations’ lagoons, so that the environment is affected by both air and water pathways. Lagoons are often located close to water, which increases the potential of ecological damage. In many places, lagoons are permitted even where groundwater can be threatened. These communities have strong concerns, especially if they use well systems as many rural residents do. If water quantity is a local concern, then lagoons pose another battleground. The lagoon system depletes groundwater supplies by using large quantities of water to flush the manure into the lagoon. As water quantity decreases, pollutants and other chemicals become more concentrated. This decreases the quality of the remaining water dramatically.
The Hog Farm Controversy
One of the biggest controversies over animal feeding operations occurred in South Carolina. Legislation introduced to accommodate hog-farming and hog-butchering operations created some of the controversy. Introduced under the title of a Right to Farm bill, the legislation passed the State House of Representatives without close scrutiny. Controversy began to build during the fall, when it became clear that the legislation would deprive local governments of some power to control land use. National media stories of environmental problems with large-scale hog farms in North Carolina started to get public attention. Those interested in economic development saw large-scale hog operations as a possible substitute for tobacco. Many of the objections to bringing the hog industry into South Carolina have to do with environmental degradation. One factor in the South Carolina hog controversy was how much waste the waterways could absorb. South Carolina water pollution permits have limited availability for waste. They did not want to use that remaining water-pollution capacity for low-return economic development.
South Carolina’s legislators decided that if they lost the hog industry, they would not lose many economic benefits, and if they kept it, it would be associated with difficult environmental problems that could hamper economic development over the long run.
EPA Attempts at Regulation
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes that AFOs pose a variety of threats to human health and the environment. According to the EPA, pollutants from livestock operations include nutrients, organic matter, sediments, pathogens, heavy metals, hormones, antibiotics, dust, and ammonia. In response to increasing community complaints and the industrialization of the livestock industry, the EPA developed water quality regulations that affect AFOs directly and indirectly, and it is a running battle. The focus of these actions is on the control of nutrient leaching and runoff . The development of this new set of rules is a large battleground.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are defined as point sources under the Clean Water Act. They are required to obtain a permit to discharge treated and untreated waste into water. Effluent guidelines establish the best available technology economically achievable for CAFOs over a certain size threshold. A threshold is the maximum amount of a chemical allowed without a permit. Thresholds pervade U.S. environmental policy and allow industries that self-report their thresholds to escape environmental scrutiny. A constant regulatory battleground is lowering the threshold to expand the reach of the regulations to include all those with environmental impacts. Many communities and environmentalists complain that the thresholds for water discharges from industrial feeding operations are much too high, thereby allowing risky discharges into water. Industry wants to remain unregulated as much as possible because it perceives these regulations as decreasing profitability. The battleground about effluent thresholds for CAFOs is a major one. The new permitting regulations address smaller CAFOs and describe additional requirements, such as monitoring and reporting.
How Do We Control the Environmental Impacts?
The proposed total maximum daily load (TMDL) regulations and the development of nutrient water-quality criteria will impact AFOs indirectly. States are required to develop TMDLs for water bodies that do not meet the standards for nutrients or other pollutants. A TMDL is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still meet water-quality standards. Through the TMDL process, pollutant loads will be allocated among all permit holders. Animal feedlot operations may have to be slowed down if there is no room for their waste in the water. AFO management practices will be more strictly scrutinized in any event, creating a battleground for enforcement of environmental protection rules. This controversy will include the TMDL controversy when it is implemented at that level.
Industrial feedlot operations provide an efficient means of meat production. Communities and environmentalists are very concerned about their environmental impacts. They want to know more about these operations and usually ask for records on effluent discharges, monitoring systems for air and water, feed management, manure handling and storage, land application of manure, tillage, and riparian buffers. New federal regulations, growing population, community concern over environmental and public health impacts, and emerging environmental lawsuits are part of the battlefield for this controversy.
Robert William Collin
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