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.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm.

5 COMMENTS

  1. This, like far too much coverage of contemporary agriculture, reminds me of an old Wendell Berry quote:
    “Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.”

  2. The Milwaukee waste water treatment plans puts removed waste into a commercial fertilizer product and sells it. Although scale is a legitimate concern, and esthetically a very appealing one, small scale production wouldn’t feed the current population… we’d have to go in for some variation on Zero Population Growth (which might not be a bad idea), or major changes in diet (beef… its what’s not for dinner unless you’ve saved up $30 a pound for a very special occasion).

    In the Amazon, animal waste literally disappears in 30 minutes, due to heat, humidity, and the available bacterial populations that take advantage of it. It should be feasible to channel the animal waste into heated chambers with the proper humidity and bacterial population, remove sterile fertilizer, and sell it to farmers growing plant crops — or home gardeners for that matter. It would take some time and trouble and up-front capital investment, which managers of a profitable business never like to entertain, but it could be self-sustaining in the long run. If its not fully-self-sustaining, factor in the costs being passed on to those downstream, charge those costs fully to the meat production process, and its still a net plus.

  3. Send it to the farms, I say. We get truck loads for free from a local college’s equestrian program and it’s the best fertilizer to be had. In some form or another, it can be used elsewhere than the water system.

  4. I think you all are right and there are things that could be done, but I don’t think they are being done. Which is a dilemma for me.
    Let’s assume I knew that one reason the meat was less expensive at a particular store was because the rendering plant up the road in the next county got rid of their unionized workers and hired a bunch of undocumented workers for significantly less pay. If there was an INS raid, we all knew where it would be. And also in the name of lower prices some CFO’s are not quite as careful about the storage and handling of animal waste, and I happen to have learned what the effect is on the trout streams around here as a result. It is not good.
    It seems to me, assuming I know these things, if I still go ahead and buy the meat what I am doing is giving my approval to these practices. That is, I think there is a moral component to my consumption. I cannot know everything about everything I purchase, but for those products that I do know about, I don’t see a way to dismiss my responsibility or my collaboration. If I buy their stuff, I am rewarding them for doing whatever they did to save me money. And if I buy from a particular retailer, I am rewarding them for their practices. If I learn that their practices run counter to some of my beliefs, then what is my proper response? I believe I have a moral obligation to act on the knowledge I possess. I do often claim ignorance – and more often than I like to think it’s true – but I am not sure how frequently I can use that as a moral excuse.
    The debate earlier about big box stores and localism to me sort of misses the point. Price cannot be the sole determinant of value. We all know this, but sometimes I think it gets lost. I think there has to be room at the table for our values and beliefs as well as our wallets.

  5. Morally, Dave is correct. In mass consumer economies, people seldom have the luxury of giving primacy to moral considerations, and often don’t even try. My income the past few years has oscillated between $11,000 and $22,000. I can afford to put my entire electric bill into the “renewable sources” category, at an increased rate per KWH, because I don’t use a whole lot of power. No air conditioning, cook with gas (which is part of the rent, as is heating in winter). But I only buy ham when I can get it on sale for 99 cents a pound. I sometimes consider grass fed beef, or buffalo steaks from my local farmers market. If I made twice as much money I would surely do that. If the evil government regulators FORCED all the meat producers to take care of their mess, the price at the market might rise modestly, but other market forces would push the other way. Anyway, it would be what is available, period, for everyone. The tragedy of the commons runs, if someone can ruthlessly use to common resource, then nobody gets the benefit of conserving it, so everyone might as well grab what they can.

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