The Scary New Math of Factory Farm Waste
By Tia Schwab
It has been almost a year since Hurricane Florence slammed the Carolinas, dumping a record 30 inches of rainfall in some parts of the states. At least 52 people died, and property and economic losses reached $24 billion, with nearly $17 billion in North Carolina alone. Flood waters also killed an estimated 3.5 million chickens and 5,500 hogs.
A lesser-known impact of the devastating hurricane was revealed through satellite photos released after the storm. Excessive rainfall flooded concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in low-lying areas, carrying riverbed sediment and animal waste previously stored in open-air lagoons into nearby waterways and then into the Atlantic. The difference between the photos, taken just five months apart before and after the storm, is striking.
Here are before-and-after photos of the coastline near Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune on April 12, 2018, and then on Sept. 19, 2018, after Hurricane Florence dumped near-record amounts of rainfall.
This photo is from April 12, 2018.Landsat 8 / NASA
Sept. 19, 2018: The dark brown liquid spilling into the Atlantic captured in this image is a mix of rainwater, riverbed sediment and waste from those factory farms within the 100-year flood plain that were inundated with more than 20 inches of rain in the matter of a couple of days. Landsat 8 / NASA
Generally, CAFOs dispose of animal waste by spraying it as fertilizer and storing the excess in massive underground pits or open-air lagoons, where sulfur-eating bacteria often turn the mixture bright pink. Given that cropland can absorb only so much, a good deal of the waste ends up in groundwater, rivers, streams and the ocean. In fact, agriculture is the leading cause of pollution in the nation's rivers and lakes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), much of it emanating from large-scale factory farms.
Floods can have even more devastating consequences for water quality. The risk is particularly pressing for North Carolina, a state regularly smacked by hurricanes, because it houses more than 2,200 hog CAFOs and 3,900 poultry CAFOs, and produces up to 10 billion gallons of animal waste a year. These estimates come from the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
One problem is that they are just that — estimates.
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.
Stanford Law Prof. Daniel Ho and Ph.D. student Cassandra Handan-Nader are hoping to change that. In a paper published in Nature Sustainability in April, they show how a new algorithm can help put CAFOs on the map. Their research focused on hog and poultry operations. The latter can contribute as much nutrient runoff to watersheds as pig operations but are largely unpermitted in North Carolina and therefore much harder to detect.
The Clean Water Act requires permits for CAFOs that discharge pollutants directly into federally regulated waters. However, permits are not required for facilities that may discharge pollutants, say, if there was a break in the manure storage tank or a hurricane. An estimated 60 percent of CAFOs do not hold permits, reported the EPA in 2011, and so monitoring these facilities for unintentional pollution is nearly impossible.
Due to the lack of information about CAFOs and the failure of the government to provide oversight, several environmental and public interest groups have conducted their own studies of the issue. Several of these organizations have hired contractors to manually scan satellite images or physically identify facilities by plane or car. But this process is time- and resource-intensive. For North Carolina alone, contractors need about six weeks to manually scan satellite images on Google Maps, according to the EWG.
Ho and Handan-Nader's automated approach could accomplish the same task in less than two days.
The development is a welcome one in an industry notoriously lacking in transparency. Around 25 states have pushed for "ag-gag" laws, which criminalize undercover filming or photography at factory farms without the consent of the owner. Nine states have passed these laws, and legislation is pending in two additional states, Kansas and North Carolina. In Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, ag-gag laws were later struck down in higher courts as a violation of free speech and equal protection.
Proponents of ag-gag laws argue that they protect the animal agriculture industry, and farm owners' privacy. Critics say it gives factory farmers license to continue practices that are dirty, unsafe and cruel. "This project helps mitigate a dangerous dearth of information about CAFOs," said Katie Cantrell, executive director of the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition. "Because CAFOs are exempt from reporting requirements under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, many communities across the United States are subjected to contaminated drinking water and dangerous levels of air pollutants, with little political recourse."
The Public Health Menace No One Knows About
The health and environmental impact of CAFOs is indeed enormous. "CAFOs are large-scale facilities that house thousands if not tens of thousands of animals in very small spaces," said Ho. "One CAFO can produce as much manure as a medium-size city in the United States" — with one critical difference: A medium-size city in the U.S. is required under the Clean Water Act to have a municipal wastewater treatment plant. CAFOs have no such treatment plant.
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.
The New York Times recently exposed the devastating effects of nitrate contamination from animal manure in low-income farmworker communities in California's Central Valley. The widespread application of chemical fertilizers and dairy cow manure has made the water unsafe for drinking, cooking and even showering. Camille Pannu, the director of the Aoki Water Justice Clinic at the University of California, Davis, likens the situation to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. "Flint is everywhere here."
Tying Data Patterns to Factory 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 EWG 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.
In receiving this information, the algorithm was retrained to identify CAFOs by looking for certain visual cues. "Swine farms were identifiable by compact rectangular barns abutted by large liquid manure pits, and poultry by long rectangular barns and dry manure storage," noted the researchers in their report. The algorithm could then be applied to unscanned locations to identify unseen CAFOs.
Handan-Nader explained this process as the retraining of an existing technology. "Instead of working with a baby, we got a toddler, who knows what an arm is, but maybe doesn't know what an entire person looks like," said Handan-Nader. In this case, the arm is a building, and an entire person is a CAFO.
To improve the tool's accuracy, the team also fed the algorithm photos of stadium bleachers, airplane hangars and mobile home parks, which only appear to match the CAFO visual cues. "Just as humans learn from being tricked, so does a computer," said Handan-Nader.
There's another way to look at the research effort, she added. They were "very unglamorously looking at poop for months and months."
It paid off. Ho and Handan-Nader identified 15 percent more poultry farms than what was found through a manual census. The researchers estimated their algorithm could identify 95 percent of existing large-scale facilities using fewer than 10 percent of the resources required for a manual census.
"Dr. Ho's work makes my job much easier," said Soren Rundquist, the director of spatial analysis at the EWG. "While humans will always need to validate and quality check computer-generated results, any innovation for locating CAFOs will make the process much more efficient. This is paramount when keeping up with an industry that can grow quickly, having an immediate impact on the environment and public health."
Replacing Guesswork With Evidence
The tool works with conventional satellite imagery, but future iterations could be trained to identify new spectral signatures, like building materials, lagoons, or actual discharges into waterways. The tool could also help detect other forms of environmental degradation, like oil spills. Stephen Luby, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, is already using a similar technology to track brick kilns, a huge source of air pollution.
Katie Cantrell envisions using the tool to provide solid evidence of the harm done by factory farming. "This mapping project provides an invaluable resource for advocates at the local, state, and national level," she said. "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." Added EWG's Rundquist, "The need for this utility is becoming more important as public information around these operations becomes more opaque and unavailable."
In the meantime, Missouri voted last month to prevent counties from passing more stringent laws regulating CAFOs. Now, local standards for health and environmental protection cannot be tougher than those of the state. In doing so, Missouri joins seven other states this year who have considered strengthening protections for CAFOs, which raises the question: Who is strengthening protections for our environment and local communities?
Tia Schwab is a news fellow for Stone Pier Press, a San Francisco-based environmental publishing company with a food focus. She recently graduated from Stanford University, where she studied human biology with a concentration in food systems and public health. She was born and raised in Austin, Texas, and she is passionate about using storytelling to create a healthy, just, and sustainable food system.
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By Arkilaus Kladit
My name is Arkilaus Kladit. I'm from the Knasaimos-Tehit tribe in South Sorong Regency, West Papua Province, Indonesia. For decades my tribe has been fighting to protect our forests from outsiders who want to log it or clear it for palm oil. For my people, the forest is our mother and our best friend. Everything we need to survive comes from the forest: food, medicines, building materials, and there are many sacred sites in the forest.
Map of the Knasaimos traditional lands.
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By Farah Aqel
Overthinkers are people who are buried in their own obsessive thoughts. Imagine being in a large maze where each turn leads into an even deeper and knottier tangle of catastrophic, distressing events — that is what it feels like to them when they think about the issues that confront them.
Ruminating<p>According to the late Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a professor of psychology at Yale University, <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5796420/" target="_blank">ruminating</a> involves replaying a problem over and over in your mind. We ruminate by obsessing over our thoughts and thinking repetitively about various aspects of a past situation.</p><p>It usually involves regret, self-loathing and self-blaming. Rumination is associated with the development of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. </p><p>People prone to such patterns of thought may, for example, overanalyze every single detail of a relationship that breaks up. They often blame themselves for what has happened and are overcome with regret, with typical thoughts being: </p><p>- I should have been more patient and more supportive. </p><p>- I have lost the most perfect partner ever. </p><p>- No one will love me again.</p>
Worrying<p>Worrying is wanting to predict the future. It involves negative thoughts about things that might and might not happen.</p><p>- They'll not like me in the interview; they'll not give me the job. </p><p>- I haven't heard back from other employers. How long will I be unemployed?</p><p>These thoughts are energy-draining and distressing. They could happen to anyone under stress. But when you reach the point where your thoughts and worrying are preventing you from doing what you want to do — from living your life to the fullest — then you should take action.</p>
Catch Yourself Overthinking<p>Reuben Berger, a psychotherapist at the university hospital in the western German city of Bonn, recommends several practical steps that you could employ in your daily routine when you catch yourself worrying or ruminating.</p><p>One effective remedy, says Berger, is the <a href="https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uf9938" target="_blank">thought-stopping technique.</a></p><p>"When the negative thoughts come or ruminations start, you say to yourself: 'Stop!,'" he says, adding that it is more effective when you actually say the word out loud.</p><p>He even recommends having a rubber band around your wrist to ping against yourself while saying the word. Adding a visual component by imagining a stop sign also makes the technique more powerful, he says.</p><p>The main idea here is conditioning yourself to stop the loop of worrying (making future predictions) or rumination (obsessing over past events).</p><p>Berger says the technique could take up to two weeks to take effect and that it needs to be practiced every day. "Consistency is very important," he says. </p>
Thoughts Are Just Thoughts<p>Another way of dealing with negative thoughts often used in modern therapy is realizing that thoughts aren't facts, says Berger.</p><p>He says it is important when we think something to ask: Is that real? Did that really happen? What is the worst thing that could happen?</p><p>Flight anxiety is one example where untrue thoughts are accepted as facts. Although air travel is the safest way to get around, people suffering from fear of flying accept their thoughts and fears as reality, then act upon them by refusing to fly.</p>
Mindfulness<p>Berger also recommends the use of mindfulness techniques, in which attention is paid to experiences in the moment without judging them, as a way of reducing worrying.</p><p>"Mindfulness helps you to distance yourself from your thoughts and to be more present in the moment," he says.</p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3432145/#R2" target="_blank">Several studies</a> have shown that mindfulness has a positive impact on reducing stress-related behaviors such as rumination and worrying, as focusing on the moment makes anxiety about other problems impossible.</p><p>Mindfulness can be practiced during routine activities by paying attention to your body and your surroundings. For instance, when you leave for work in the morning, you can focus on sensing the breeze, listen attentively to birds, feel the gravel under your feet and monitor your breath. </p>
Trick Your Brain Into Happiness<p>People plagued by obsessive thoughts do not always choose healthy ways like mindfulness to distract from them, however.</p><p> Dr. Edward Selby, a psychologist at Florida state university, has shown in a study that people try to avoid rumination by engaging in a range of uncontrolled behaviors, such as binge eating and substance abuse.</p><p>But he says that a much better way to overcome such distress is by distraction and shifting attention away from problems that are obsessing us.</p><p>There are many activities that can be used to distract from rumination, he says, and people should choose the one that works best for them. Here are some examples:</p><p>- Listen to music</p><p>- Read a book</p><p>- Take a hot shower</p><p>- Dance or exercise </p><p>- Talk to a friend (not about the problem)</p><p>- Watch a movie</p><p>- Mindfulness meditation</p>
Changing the Perception of Events<p>The way people perceive a situation largely influences their emotions and behavior. It is not the situation itself that determines how they feel, but rather the way they interpret it.</p><p>Reframing negative thoughts can lead to positive emotions and, subsequently, healthier behaviors — including a reduction in damaging overthinking and worrying.</p><p>Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is currently a gold standard in psychotherapy. CBT aims to change the way people think and act. It largely involves challenging unhelpful beliefs or attitudes such as overgeneralization — thinking "I always fail at public speaking" when you have had one bad experience in front of an audience, for example — or "catastrophization," i.e., imagining the worst possible outcome to a situation. </p><p>A psychotherapist can teach people how to implement such thought-changing techniques into their lives. Techniques vary depending on their issues and goals.</p>
Solutions Are at Hand<p>Try to find ways of avoiding worrying, rumination and overthinking that make you feel most comfortable.</p><p>Incorporating any routine in your life when you're stressed isn't an easy task, but you can do it! If you feel overwhelmed, you can always seek professional help. </p><p><em>If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, <a href="https://www.befrienders.org/" target="_blank">at this website.</a></em></p>
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By Michael Baker, Amanda Kvalsvig and Nick Wilson
On Sunday, New Zealand marked 100 days without community transmission of COVID-19.
Deaths From COVID-19 Per Million Population<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU0ODIyOS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MjkzMDc1OX0.7Yp1h1hokihlMJUurDukGmq-Y8NJB0V-07O1ukEjGt0/img.png?width=980" id="0fe6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bce85a610aee18e2f4f1c1caca7b8a0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
<div id="77fff" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce7b34f8986d3d36bee5d4d83ac0822c"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1292270210238447616" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">COVID-19 Update There are no new cases of COVID-19 to report in New Zealand today. It has been 100 days since t… https://t.co/Cz55ixGZUz</div> — Unite against COVID-19 (@Unite against COVID-19)<a href="https://twitter.com/covid19nz/statuses/1292270210238447616">1596936201.0</a></blockquote></div>
Getting Through the Pandemic<p>We have gained a much better understanding of COVID-19 over the past eight months. Without effective control measures, it is likely to continue to spread globally for many months to years, ultimately infecting billions and killing millions. The proportion of infected people who die appears to be <a href="https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.03.20089854v4" target="_blank">slightly below 1%</a>.</p><p>This infection also causes serious <a href="https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m2815" target="_blank">long-term consequences</a> for some survivors. The largest uncertainties involve <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02278-5" target="_blank">immunity to this virus</a>, whether it can develop from exposure to infection or vaccines, and if it is long-lasting. The potential for treatment with antivirals and other therapeutics is also still uncertain.</p><p>This knowledge reinforces the huge benefits of sustaining elimination. We know that if New Zealand were to experience widespread COVID-19 transmission, the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3310086/" target="_blank">impact on Māori and Pasifika populations</a> could be catastrophic.</p><p>We have previously described critical measures to get us through this period, including the use of fabric face masks, improving contact tracing with suitable digital tools, applying a science-based approach to border management, and the need for a dedicated national public health agency.</p><p>Maintaining elimination depends on adopting a highly strategic approach to risk management. This approach involves choosing an optimal mix of interventions and using resources in the most efficient way to keep the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks at a consistently low level. Several measures can contribute to this goal over the next few months, while also allowing incremental increases in international travel:</p><ul><li>resurgence planning for a border-control failure and outbreaks of various sizes, with state-of-the-art contact tracing and an upgraded alert level system</li><li>ensuring all New Zealanders own a <a href="https://www.nzma.org.nz/journal-articles/mass-masking-an-alternative-to-a-second-lockdown-in-aotearoa" target="_blank">re-useable fabric face mask</a> with their <a href="https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12354409" target="_blank">use built into the alert level system</a></li><li>conducting exercises and simulations to test outbreak management procedures, possibly including "mass masking days" to engage the public in the response</li><li>carefully exploring processes to allow <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2020/06/16/preventing-outbreaks-of-covid-19-in-nz-associated-with-air-travel-from-australia-new-modelling-study-of-alternatives-to-quarantine/" target="_blank">quarantine-free travel</a> between jurisdictions free of COVID-19, notably various Pacific Islands, Tasmania and Taiwan (which may require digital tracking of arriving travellers for the first few weeks)</li><li>planning for carefully managed inbound travel by key long-term visitor groups such as tertiary students who would generally still need managed quarantine.</li></ul>
Building Back Better<p>New Zealand cannot change the reality of the global COVID-19 pandemic. But it can leverage possible benefits.</p><p>We should conduct an <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2020/06/11/five-key-reasons-why-nz-should-have-an-official-inquiry-into-the-response-to-the-covid-19-pandemic/" target="_blank">official inquiry into the COVID-19 response</a> so we learn everything we possibly can to improve our response capacity for future events.</p><p>We also need to establish a specialized national public health agency to <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2017/12/20/the-havelock-north-drinking-water-inquiry-a-wake-up-call-to-rebuild-public-health-in-new-zealand/" target="_blank">manage serious threats to public health</a> and provide critical mass to <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2020/02/05/a-preventable-measles-epidemic-lessons-for-reforming-public-health-in-nz/" target="_blank">advance public health generally</a>. Such an agency appears to have been a key factor in the success of Taiwan, which avoided a costly lockdown entirely.</p><p>Business as usual should not be an option for the recovery phase. A recent <a href="https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=12353555" target="_blank">Massey University survey</a> suggests seven out of ten New Zealanders support a green recovery approach.</p><p>New Zealand's elimination of COVID-19 has drawn attention worldwide, with a description just <a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2025203" target="_blank">published</a> in the New England Journal of Medicine. We support a rejuvenated World Health Organization that can provide improved global leadership for pandemic prevention and control, including greater use of an elimination approach to combat COVID-19.</p>
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