Factory Farms Pollute the Environment and Poison Drinking Water

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By Daniel Ross

Hurricane Florence, which battered the U.S. East Coast last September, left a trail of ruin and destruction estimated to cost between $17 billion and $22 billion. Some of the damage was all too visible—smashed homes and livelihoods. But other damage was less so, like the long-term environmental impacts in North Carolina from hog waste that spilled out over large open-air lagoons saturated in the rains.

Hog waste can contain potentially dangerous pathogens, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. According to the state's Department of Environmental Quality, as of early October nearly 100 such lagoons were damaged, breached or were very close to being so, the effluent from which can seep into waterways and drinking water supplies.

Rather than an isolated problem, however, the story of North Carolina's failure to properly manage its hog waste opens a door to what critics say is a much wider national and global issue: the increasingly extensive and varied impacts on our water resources, air and soils from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

"The big problem with this model is the waste management problem that it creates, generating so much waste in such high concentration," said Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of organizations monitoring U.S. waterways. "We haven't really improved the technologies for managing this waste beyond what we were using centuries ago."

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

In recent decades, livestock numbers have soared in the U.S., while the number of actual farms has shrunk—a dynamic fueled in part by the government's acquiescence to industrial farming mega-mergers. In 2015, for example, just four companies accounted for 85 percent of the nation's beef packing industry. This has given rise to what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls CAFOs, livestock operations where animals—primarily cows, pigs and chickens—are kept and raised in confined spaces.

The amount of animal feces and urine produced in these facilities is staggering—more than 40 times the waste generated in wastewater treatment plants. Most CAFO waste is spread over farmland as fertilizer. But unlike strictly regulated human waste, the waste generated by CAFOs isn't held to the same standard and is largely untreated. "The basic legal theory, which is basic legal fiction, is that the waste will be kept on site and applied to adjacent cropland and [will] never enter our water-bodies," said Hendrick.

What actually happens is that potentially toxic chemicals, drugs and bacteria in untreated animal wastes drain off or leach through the soils, making their way into the nation's rivers, streams, groundwater and drinking water at alarming rates, directly impacting communities. Iowa's largest municipal water utility provider, for example, recently sued a number of upstream drainage districts for excessive drinking water nitrate levels caused by farmland runoff. The lawsuit, however, was subsequently dismissed, the judge ruling it a problem for the state legislatures to tackle.

CAFO wastes are regulated to some extent. Under the Clean Water Act, for example, operators must file a nutrient management plan with their state environmental agencies. "Whether spread next to the CAFO or on neighboring fields, that manure spreading is done only after a careful analysis of both the manure itself and the land it's applied to. There are legal penalties attached to violating those plans," said Will Rodger, a spokesperson for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), in an email. The bureau is a powerful lobbying organization that has championed efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act.

Enforcement of these management plans, however, varies from state to state, said Tom Pelton, spokesperson for the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit environmental watchdog. "In reality, there's not much enforcement, and they're also difficult to enforce," he added.

Soil Oversaturated With Animal Manure

The prevalence of veterinary drug use in industrial farming, and the associated health risks when humans are exposed to these drugs, is another factor that critics highlight. Antibiotics, for example, make their way through the waste-streams at these facilities and out into the environment, leading to fears of increased antibiotic resistance in humans, not to mention their damaging impacts on sensitive ecosystems.

There's also the question of what to do with excess animal waste when the available agricultural land surrounding CAFOs is limited, leading to oversaturation of soils with animal manure. "There are still some states that have not banned applying this waste on frozen ground," said Patty Lovera, assistant director at Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy organization that has called for an end to factory farms. "That's not about growing crops. That's about disposal."

Animal waste doesn't only impact valuable water resources. Industrial livestock production generates huge quantities of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas. According to the EPA, all national agricultural processes, including livestock production, accounted for 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization pins the percentage share from livestock production on overall anthropogenic global greenhouse emissions much higher—at 14.5 percent.

Despite the fact that the EPA has long known about high levels of CAFO-produced air pollution, the agency is seeking to exempt these facilities from having to report toxic air emissions like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide under a federal right-to-know law, though a group of environmental organizations filed a lawsuit last year to halt that proposed rule.

Air quality issues from industrial farming can also be more locally felt. In North Carolina, for example, neighbors of a hog farm operated by Murphy-Brown filed a lawsuit in 2014 against the owners complaining of nuisance noises and odors, worsening their quality of life. Theirs was one of a number of lawsuits against Smithfield Foods, Murphy-Brown's parent company. The plaintiffs from that particular suit were recently awarded $473.5 million. But the state legislature also passed a law limiting the legal action that residents can now take against neighboring CAFOs.

Agricultural Chemicals

More animals, of course, means that more crops must be grown to feed them, which leads to broader industrial farming impacts, including runoff from agricultural chemicals like those found in fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides. What kinds of impacts do these chemicals have? A recent study out of New Zealand finds that certain bacteria develop antibiotic resistance up to 100,000 times faster when exposed to common herbicides like Roundup and Kamba. Agricultural runoff also helps feed harmful algae blooms.

According to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis of data from 2014 and 2015, the drinking water in 1,700 individual systems (affecting approximately 7 million people) contained nitrogen at levels higher than 5 parts per million (ppm), an amount the National Cancer Institute says increases the risk of colon, kidney, ovarian and bladder cancers. The EWG also found that nearly 32,000 Americans received drinking water containing nitrogen at levels exceeding the EPA's threshold of 10 ppm—a limit set more than 55 years ago.

Nor is it cheap for consumers to filter out chemicals like nitrates themselves, explained Anne Weir Schechinger, EWG's senior economic analyst. As an example, the Iowan utility tackling elevated drinking water nitrate levels is reportedly spending $15 million to expand its filtration technology. "That's why we want to make sure our audience has more [information] resources so they can protect themselves if the EPA isn't going to," Weir Schechinger said, pointing to EWG's drinking water database.

The American Farm Bureau Federation disputes EWG's findings, and points to what it regards as "inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity" in drinking water. "We are not impressed with this effort, nor the quality of EWG's reports across the board," said Will Rodger in an email. In response, Weir Schechinger explained how for decades, "peer-reviewed studies have shown a clear link between an increased risk of cancer and nitrate levels in tap water that are lower than EPA's legal limit—and no amount of lobbying from special interest groups will change the science."

Indeed, the health risks associated with living in close proximity to CAFOs are becoming increasingly clearer. A recent study out of Duke University found that North Carolinians who live near hog farms have higher death rates from a variety of health issues—including anemia, kidney disease, septicemia, tuberculosis and infant mortality—compared to those who live further away from such facilities. And who are the people most affected? CAFOs disproportionately impact low-income rural communities, African Americans, Latino Americans and Native Americans.

What Can Be Done?

The regulatory framework exists—in federal laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act—to force CAFO operators to properly dispose of their waste, said Sacoby Wilson, associate professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Health. The problem is, "They [CAFO operators] have a very strong hook in the legislature," he said, pointing to the political clout that large agricultural organizations wield. That's why CAFO operators have for so long circumvented more stringent waste disposal laws, according to Wilson.

But Wilson stressed that in the event CAFOs are held to tougher laws in the future, the costs associated with modernizing these facilities should be absorbed by the large conglomerates driving the CAFO industry, rather than the smaller farm operators, many of whom struggle financially. "In the process of compliance, there would have to be some modifications made to make sure the costs are internalized by the corporations," said Wilson. "We're not anti-farmers, we're pro-farmers. We're not anti-development, we are pro-sustainable development."

Experts point to other things that CAFO operators can do to minimize their environmental footprint. Greater use of cover crops would promote healthier soils and reduce erosion. Buffer strips and terraces—natural devices that intercept pollutants—help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. But other proposed changes are more controversial. Methane digesters might sound like a good way of transforming methane emissions into renewable energy, but critics pick holes in such technologies, arguing that they do little to nothing to tackle the sheer volume of animal waste generated. More broadly, critics highlight ethical issues inherent in CAFOs, pointing to instances of animal abuse and cramped living conditions.

At the end of the day, though CAFOs are the "dominant model of agriculture," said Lovera, "we didn't vote" for this system. "If I could wave the magic wand, everybody would be using different agricultural techniques, but it's going to take some steps to get us there."

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute, and was originally published by Truthout.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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