Corporate farm waste may be a bigger environmental problem than we can imagine

When Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas in 2018, at least 52 people were killed and the economic loss was estimated at almost $17 billion.

One major loss was of animals on farms, where the giant storm killed approximately 3.5 million chickens and 5,500 hogs.

But perhaps the biggest loser of all when it came to Florence was Mother Earth herself, as the torrential rains flooded corporate farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) carrying animal waste into local waterways and finally to the Atlantic Ocean. Think of that the next time you go boogie boarding.

Greed Media reports that we don’t even have accurate figures for just how much factory farm waste we’re surrounded by:

“The truth is no one really knows how much factory farm waste is escaping into our environment because no federal agency collects consistent and reliable information on the number, size, and location of large-scale agricultural operations, nor the pollution they’re emitting. This means there is considerable variation on how thoroughly states track and monitor CAFOs. Without this information, no one can monitor and hold CAFOS accountable for mismanaged waste and related health and environmental damage.”

One of the most common sites on large corporate farm operations is what’s known as an open-air cesspool, and yes, it’s just as disgusting as the name implies. OneGreenPlanet explains what an open-air cesspool is:

“These are the giant lagoons where factory farms store all of the excrement produced by the animals who live on their facilities. Animals raised for food produce about 130 times more excrement than the entire human population, so when you start to think about where all of that waste goes, you gradually can begin to fathom how HUGE these open-air cesspools are.”

The stench from these cesspools can be overwhelming, and when one overflows or gets flooded, the animal waste winds up in the groundwater and other sources of clean water we all rely on.

There’s also a larger public health menace posed by factory farms that house tens of thousands of animals, and yet the Clean Water Act doesn’t apply to them:

“When animal manure escapes from CAFOs into nearby water sources, it can have devastating health consequences for people and ecosystems. Manure can contain nitrogen and phosphorus, pathogens such as E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals used as additives to the manure or to clean equipment, animal blood, and silage leachate from corn feed, reports the National Association of Local Boards of Health. Ammonia is also often found in surface waters surrounding CAFOs. When exposed to air, ammonium converts into nitrate, and elevated nitrate levels in drinking water have been connected to poor general health, birth defects, and miscarriages. For infants, it can mean blue baby syndrome and even death.”

To battle the problems posed by large corporate farms, Stanford Law Professor Daniel Ho and Ph.D. student Cassandra Handan-Nader have a plan to better map the location of such farms:

“To put factory farms on the map, the Stanford team figured out how to teach a computer algorithm to analyze data patterns. They got help from Google’s advances in image learning, the USDA’s National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP), and the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance.

“The environmental groups supplied locations of CAFOs they had collected manually. The researchers matched those locations to NAIP satellite images, hand-validating the presence of CAFOs using these same processes. Once CAFOs were confirmed, the team combined this information with open-source image-recognition tools released by Google, which were already trained to identify different types of objects, buildings, people and animals in photos.”

As a result, the environmental impact of corporate farms can also be more accurately measured and blame assessed to the farms that guilty of polluting the air and water,  Katie Cantrell, executive director of the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, notes:

“This mapping project provides an invaluable resource for advocates at the local, state, and national levels. They can use it to document correlations between the location and density of CAFOs and socioeconomic data, health data such as asthma and mortality rates, and air and water pollution data, that can hopefully help drive better regulation and protection of front-line communities.”

Farms are necessary and play an important role in feeding this country and the world, but if they pollute the air and water we all rely on, is that a devil’s bargain we’re willing to make?

Featured Image Via OneGreenPlanet

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Andrew Bradford

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