Hog farms are being blamed for water pollution that's actually coming from cities.
June 1, 1998
by Dennis T. Avery
A list of "America’s Most Endangered Rivers" for 1998 flashed across the country recently. The headline ran: "Environmental Group Warns Hog, Chicken Farms Harming U.S. Rivers."
A watchdog group called American Rivers put out the list—and a message that "factory hog and chicken farms are a growing national blight on our nation’s rivers . . . so pervasive it could send us back to the days when rivers . . . were nothing more than cesspools." I hate to say it about nice people who care about cleaning up our rivers—but their crusade could set environmental rescue back a decade. Ignorance won’t clean up our rivers.
Even worse, this dislike of big hog farms is betraying the future of the world’s forests. The big problem is that the world now has far more people with high incomes, and these people want to eat meat like the rest of us. Globally, meat consumption is rising by five million tons per year. Eventually, world production will expand from its current one billion hogs to about three billion and from the current thirteen billion chickens to perhaps fifty billion.
Traditional small farms have allowed livestock wastes to drain into our streams and rivers for centuries. (I grew up next to a herd of wallowing, rooting hogs in Michigan. Fortunately, they were downstream.) To raise two billion more pigs outdoors, in traditional small herds and flocks, we would have to convert millions of square miles from wildlands to pasture. That land would have to be taken from the world's forests. At four hogs per acre, we would need half the land area of Brazil (1.5 million square miles) just for the extra hogs! And all the urine and manure from these animals would wash into the rivers. It would be an environmental catastrophe.
Fortunately, modern farming is far different. The manure from big, confined hog and poultry houses is an environmental bonus, not a problem. The animal wastes are carefully saved in lagoons, tanks, or dry storage and spread on growing crops. (Organic farmers have been telling Americans for decades that these wastes make the finest, safest fertilizer of all. Modern hog and poultry farms take them up on it.)
Farms Use Nutrients; Cities Dump Them
When we called the American Rivers office, they told us that each big hog and poultry farm produces as much waste as a small city and pours it into our rivers.
It is true that the wastes from hogs, chickens—and humans—contain large amounts of nitrate and phosphorous, and that these nutrients can overfertilize streams, as mentioned. As noted earlier, however, the big hog and poultry farms don't dump their waste in streams; they collect it and spread it on growing crops. Thus most of their nitrogen turns into plant growth or volatilizes into the air.
If American Rivers is truly worried about over-fertilized streams, they should be pointing toward cities such as St. Louis and Kansas City that are pouring huge amount of nutrients into rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri. Unfortunately, they seem to be victims of some terrible misinformation about pollution. Steve Ellis, an American Rivers staffer, told me that his organization does not worry about cities being a nutrient-pollution problem because "the cities treat their wastewater before releasing it."
He seemed unaware that modern urban sewage treatment removes hardly any of the nitrogen and phosphate from wastewater. The Clean Water Act doesn’t even class these nutrients as pollutants. Moreover, every rainstorm flushes tons of nitrous oxide from auto exhausts through the storm sewers and into the streams American Rivers says it wants to protect.
Farms Don’t Kill Fish
American Rivers rates the pretty little Pocomoke River in eastern Maryland as the second-most-endangered river in America—and they blame farmers. American Rivers says that factory poultry farms in the Pocomoke watershed "stimulate the growth of Pfiesteria . . . [a parasite] that has been killing fish and making swimmers and boaters ill."
But there’s nothing to back up their claim:
The Maryland Governor’s Pfiesteria Action Group and a panel of scientists both publicly reported that there is no connection between Pfiesteria and poultry farming.
The Pocomoke’s poultry farms have moved almost entirely to zero-discharge management in the last dozen years. However, the river has two urban sewage treatment plants, and each releases half a million gallons of wastewater per day.
One of the three Maryland rivers that had Pfiesteria outbreaks last fall has virtually no chicken farms nearby, and hardly any other "nutrient sources."
Scientists believe that high fish populations (or low water volumes) may trigger the toxic attacks by Pfiesteria.
Number eight on the American Rivers 1998 endangered list is the Apple River in northern Illinois. The folks at American Rivers assert that the Apple is "threatened by factory hog farms."
True, two of the most modern hog farms in the world are being built in the Apple Valley, but they will not pollute the river. They are designed to save their wastes and use them as organic fertilizer. The operation will also be closely monitored, by both state officials and wary environmentalists such as Steve Ellis. It is far from clear, by contrast, that the sewage treatment plants in the Illinois communities of Woodbine, Elizabeth, and Hanover are protecting the Apple from nutrient pollution.
Testing the Waters?
Actually, nutrients may not be much of a problem at all. We simply don’t know. We did not test any of our streams for nutrient levels before 1972, and we haven’t done much since. We must also remember that most of the nutrients consumed by fish, frogs, and other marine creatures come from the land. Thus the marine life also needs nitrogen and phosphorus. Streams do need some nitrogen and phosphorus.
Note that American Rivers is trying to gin up support for a renewed and expanded Clean Water Act, and they are well aware that it took a crisis atmosphere to get the first Clean Water Act passed in 1972. Today, however, hardly anyone doubts that clean water legislation is correct and necessary. And we have already spent trillions of dollars on sewage treatment and industrial wastewater cleanup.
If American Rivers really wants to protect America’s rivers, they might lobby for a Clean Water Act that requires someone to test the water to find out where we actually have problems! Unfortunately, the current lack of data suits the activists just fine. When no one has good data, the field is wide open for the people who write scary press releases.
We deserve clean water regulation based on something more solid than panicky press releases. Unbiased research and a willingness to accept the results are the way to achieve it.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.