Who is America’s next top polluter? It’s not who you might think.
When most people think of water pollution, they picture BP’s drilling rig gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or old discharge pipes spewing chemicals or sewage into our rivers and streams.
Research shows, however, that today one of the biggest threats to our water is how big corporations are running — and ruining — many of America’s farms.
Chicken farms are concentrating large numbers of chickens into too little space with no place to put all their waste. Other corporate agribusinesses are spreading too much fertilizer and too many chemicals onto the land. And they’re taking too little care to keep all of this manure and other pollution out of our water.
The consequences include an enormous bloom of toxic algae in waterways all over the country, from Lake Erie to our very own Chesapeake Bay, contaminating the drinking water of 500,000 people and 100,000 miles of American rivers and streams that are now too polluted for swimming and drinking.
This spring, we’re working to reveal America’s next top polluter: Because once people know the truth, they will demand change.
How heavy is the toll that corporate agribusiness imposes on our water? The largest factory farm operations produce millions of tons of manure every year — in fact far more manure than the sewage produced by the entire U.S. population.
This agribusiness pollution is a big part of what’s making many of our waterways so polluted that they are unsafe for fishing, swimming or wildlife. It is a leading cause of huge biological “dead zones” from the Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico in which no life can survive.
The small chicken farms that populate and sustain the Eastern Shore also truly suffer from the weight of the manure-laden litter. These farms are family farms with no bargaining power when it comes to entering into contracts with large poultry companies. The farmers are provided with the chicks and the feed and detailed instructions on exactly how to raise them, but they do not own the chickens. They are, however, left with ownership of the manure-laden waste generated by the chickens. The waste needs to be cleared from the farms or else the farmers are left subject to fines and closures.
Family farms have no choice but to deal with these large poultry companies because they have taken over the community. They are the only game in town if you want to farm. Small independent farmers don’t stand a chance against the team of lawyers who make sure the contracts give the lion’s share of the profits to the poultry companies and all the liability is left with the farmer. Whoever owns the birds should also own the poop that comes out of them. This is a labor exploitation issue that deserves the federal government’s attention.
By and large, the practices needed to curb this pollution are well-known, including buffer zones, cover crops, reduced fertilizer use, and holding the corporations who own the birds accountable for every pound of manure they generate and not the farmer.
It’s high time these corporate polluters put these solutions to work, for the bay, and all our waterways.
Jessie Mehrhoff is lead organizer for Environment Maryland, a statewide, citizen-funded advocacy organization. He writes from Baltimore.
Will Morrow is farm manager of Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg.