Surprise! Factory farming creates huge piles of manure. And these piles are difficult to keep out of the water system. An editorial from the NYT is critical of the rather anemic attempts by the EPA to control this problem.
According to the E.P.A.’s own studies, agricultural runoff is the leading cause of impaired water quality. The amount of manure produced by factory farms is staggering. The agency estimates that those operations create between 500 million and 1 billion tons of manure, three times as much waste as humans produce in the United States. The task of keeping those hundreds of millions of tons of animal waste out of rivers, lakes and estuaries is enormous, clearly requiring a strong set of revised regulations for the handling of factory-farm waste, including provisions for tracking waste when it’s been moved offsite.
Right now, the patchwork of regulations — which assume a great deal of self-policing — suits the factory-farm industry all too well. So does the E.P.A.’s inability to gather even the most basic information about those farms. The industry believes that the less consumers know, the better. President Obama’s nominee to lead the E.P.A., Gina McCarthy, is still awaiting Senate confirmation. If and when she gets the job, she should make it an early priority to get the data she needs to shed light on — and forcefully regulate — an industry that thrives on ignorance.
Scale may produce some efficiencies, but in our enthusiasm we shouldn’t be blinded by the inefficiencies. Human scale farming operations can easily return the manure to the soil, thereby improving the land while avoiding the costly mess created by factory farming. The NYT suggests that the EPA needs to be more aggressive, but there’s obviously a better alternative: like so many challenges facing us today, a serious discussion of scale is a necessary, though largely forgotten, element.