March 4, 2005
by Dennis T. Avery
The Environmental Protection Agency is launching a new assault on the aerial emissions of confinement hog and poultry farms. In a Kafka-like scenario, EPA's enforcement staff brags that it has agreed not to charge the confinement hog and poultry farms with any past violations of the Clean Air Act -- which the EPA has never monitored. But only if the confinement farms pay "fines" based on their size and agree to pony up several million dollars to study their current supposed air quality violations so the EPA can charge them with future violations.
The rationale: The EPA says confinement farms "have been the focus of an increasing number of citizen complaints and concern about possible health impacts."
The EPA has little evidence of any real-world health problems associated with the confinement farms, but it undoubtedly does have stacks of complaint letters stimulated by the Sierra Club and other "factory farm" opponents. For years, the environmental movement has been trying to drive the confinement "factory farms" out of business and restore the thousands of little outdoor hog and poultry farms that characterized our countryside 50 years ago.
Ironically, at this very moment Asian governments are wrestling with the human health impacts of too few factory farms. The World Health Organization is warning of another avian influenza epidemic that could conceivably kill huge numbers of people; the flu pandemic of 1918-19 killed more than 20 million.
To prevent new Asian flu pandemics, the WHO wants Asian farmers to get their chickens out of the villages and the ducks out of the rice paddies. Health officials want the birds put into the sort of confinement poultry houses America already uses. The confinement farming eliminates the close interaction between people and birds that can create deadly new strains of influenza.
Sometimes in the safety of the First World we forget first principles. The first principle of public health is that most of our big, dangerous disease epidemics have involved the close interaction of humans and their "domestic" animals: smallpox and tuberculosis from cattle, AIDS and yellow fever from monkeys, bubonic plague from the fleas on rats, cats, and dogs -- and influenza from poultry.
If we were raising our birds and animals outdoors the old-fashioned way, we'd have ten times as many livestock and poultry locations, because the outdoor farms are necessarily smaller. That means ten times as many sources exchanging contaminated dust between livestock and people, with vastly more chances to create new disease strains. Even for annoying odors, lots of small outdoor farms would mean assaulting ten times as many human noses on ten times as many perimeters.
How much of the smog today in Los Angeles is due to poultry farms? None.
How many people have ever been hospitalized with "pork lung" from breathing the aerial emissions of hog farms? None is on record.
Our air quality problem has been in the cities, which have been assaulted by fleets of auto exhausts, packs of diesel trucks and busses, huge power plant smokestacks, whole sets of factory emissions, and the dusts inevitably stirred by dense human populations.
The EPA's record there is good. U.S. cities are reporting for 2004 the lowest smog levels since we started measuring in the 1970s -- 50 percent below the 2003 levels, themselves a record low.
Perhaps the EPA should take more pride in that urban air quality accomplishment and have an in-depth talk with the Centers for Disease Control about the salutary human health effects of having a relatively few large hog and poultry houses essentially separated from human population centers.
The Green dream of having lots of little organic hog and poultry farms scattered amongst our cities and towns would be not only more offensive to more people, but deadly dangerous to the global human population.
Nostalgia isn't worth it.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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