By Sara Kangas, government relations intern, National Farmers Union
Over the past seventy years, intensive livestock operations like animal feeding operations (AFOs) have caused a shift in the culture of American farming. Influenced by scientific and technological advancements and increased efficiency practices, AFOs can now produce larger animals in a faster time span than ever before. Since 1960, milk production has doubled, meat production has tripled, and egg production has quadrupled. A chicken in 1920 took nearly 16 weeks to reach a weight of 2.2 pounds, but nowadays can surpass five pounds in under seven weeks. The trend toward concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is economically supported as well, with lower costs facilitating higher profits. Despite the large scale of their operations, numerous CAFOs are also family farms. When properly managed, located, and monitored, CAFOs can be a source of low-cost meat, eggs, and dairy. These controlled environments provide efficient feeding and housing and can contribute to local employment, yet CAFOs require attentive waste management because of their scale.
Since 1999, NFU has expressly addressed the issue of CAFOs in its national policy, usually in conjunction with the Water Quality Provision. The two policies have been tied, as “NFU recognizes that family farm agriculture and good sound environmental practices need to work together.” Since 2011, the U.S. Environment EPA has maintained a national enforcement initiative (NEI) focused on reducing animal waste pollution from the nation’s waters. EPA recently solicited public comments and recommendations on these priority enforcement areas for the fiscal years 2017 through 2019.
Most operations handle the demands of manure maintenance by applying manure to the soil of the property and by creating lagoon systems for liquid manure. These lagoons, which can encompass as much as seven and a half acres and contain 20-45 million gallons of wastewater, are the source of a majority of enforcement issues with CAFOs. Manure applied directly to the soil can overwhelm the absorptive capacity, causing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous to leach into ground water. Rain, runoff, or faulty storage materials can cause the lagoons to overflow or leak into the water supply as well. Many CAFOs utilize clay liners for their lagoons in an attempt to prevent seepage of wastewater into the soil. Yet these clay liners still permit .05 to .08 inches of wastewater to leak each day, translating to 0.99 to 4.35 million gallons of wastewater per year in the soil, or 19.8 to 87.1 million gallons of wastewater over the 20-year lifespan of a typical waste lagoon. At its maximum, that is enough water to fill 132 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or enough for 696,800,000 eight-ounce glasses of water.
Contaminated ground water poses a significant threat to the daily lives of Americans, as a portion of the population relies on ground water for their drinking water, especially in rural communities. Viruses and bacteria present in manure can leach into groundwater and survive in the soil for extended amounts of time, contaminating the drinking supply. Ammonia from contaminated soil contributes to elevated nitrate levels in ground water drinking supplies, which can pose a severe health risk to the population at large. A study of wells that had manure applied within 100 feet over a course of five years were found to have double the likelihood of elevated nitrate levels than those which did not have manure applied nearby.
Surface waters, used both for recreational purposes and for drinking supply, are also susceptible. Nutrient levels present in the surface waters surrounding CAFOs contribute to oxygen depletion, killing aquatic life and aquatic vegetation, as well as affecting their biology. These nutrient levels additionally contribute to the formation of algal blooms, cyanobacterial growth, and shifts to noxious species of phytoplankton. Protozoa present in manure-contaminated water affect the quality of life of consumers and, in conjunction with the other contaminants, can cause lifestyle changes. Contaminated waters can contribute to antibiotic resistance, and insect vectors known to carry diseases prefer to live and breed in the optimal environments that manure lagoons provide.
At a recent congressional hearing, Rep. David Scott said “agriculture is the most important industry; it’s the food we eat, it’s the water we drink, it’s our survival.” We must ensure the EPA continues to maintain the “Preventing Animal Waste from Contaminating Surface Water and Ground Water” NEI to ensure the future of agriculture. CAFOs must remain responsible for proper manure disposal in order to ensure the health of the industry, the health of the environment, and the health of the nation.