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.
The Public Health Menace No One Knows About<p>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.<br></p><p>When animal manure escapes from CAFOs into nearby water sources, it can have devastating <a href="https://stonepierpress.org/goodfoodnews/factory-farms-public-health" target="_blank">health consequences</a> for people and ecosystems. Manure can contain nitrogen and phosphorus, pathogens such as <em>E. coli</em>, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals used as additives to the manure or to clean equipment, animal blood and silage leachate from corn feed, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf" target="_blank">reports</a> 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.</p><p><a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/21/us/california-central-valley-tainted-water.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share" target="_blank">The New York Times</a> 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 <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/us/flint-water-crisis.html?module=inline" target="_blank">water crisis</a> in Flint, Michigan. "Flint is everywhere here."</p>
Tying Data Patterns to Factory Farms<p>To put factory farms on the map, the Stanford team figured out how to teach a computer algorithm to analyze data patterns. They got <a href="https://woods.stanford.edu/news/machine-learning-environmental-enforcer" target="_blank">help</a> from Google's advances in image learning, the USDA's National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP), and the <a href="https://www.ewg.org/" target="_blank">EWG</a> and <a href="https://waterkeeper.org/" target="_blank">Waterkeeper Alliance</a>.<br></p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>There's another way to look at the research effort, she added. They were "very unglamorously looking at poop for months and months."</p><p>It paid off. Ho and Handan-Nader identified 15 percent more poultry farms than what was found through a manual census. The researchers <a href="https://woods.stanford.edu/news/machine-learning-environmental-enforcer" target="_blank">estimated</a> their algorithm could identify 95 percent of existing large-scale facilities using fewer than 10 percent of the resources required for a manual census.</p><p>"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."</p>
Replacing Guesswork With Evidence<p>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.</p><p>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."</p><p>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 <a href="https://psmag.com/news/missouri-outlaws-rural-residents-last-line-of-protection-against-cafos" target="_blank">seven</a> 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?</p>
By Emilie Karrick Surrusco
It's been nearly four months since Hurricane Florence battered the North Carolina coast, dumping 9 trillion gallons of water on the state in the span of four days. In Duplin County, home to the nation's largest concentration of industrial hog operations, the storm's deluge laid bare problems that persist in good weather and in bad.
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One of the biggest winning groups in Tuesday's midterm elections didn't even get to cast a ballot: the nation's farm animals.
By Wyatt Massey
Sue George never intended to be an activist. The soft-spoken, retired elementary school teacher was content on her century farm near Lime Springs, a town in the rolling hills of northeast Iowa with a tad under 500 people.
By Karen Perry Stillerman
In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, I've joined millions who've watched with horror as the Carolinas have been inundated with floodwaters and worried about the various hazards those waters can contain. We've seen heavy metal-laden coal ash spills, a nuclear plant go on alert (thankfully without incident), and sewage treatment plants get swamped. But the biggest and most widely reported hazard associated with Florence appears to be the hog waste that is spilling from many of the state's thousands of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), and which threatens lasting havoc on public health and the local economy.
"This was an unprecedented storm with flooding expected to exceed that from any other storms in recent memory. We know agricultural losses will be significant because the flooding has affected the top six agricultural counties in our state," said agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler in a press release.
The footprint of flooding from this storm covers much of the same area hit by flooding from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which only worsens the burden on these farmers.
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Duke University Study: N.C. Residents Living Near Large Hog Farms Have Elevated Disease, Death Risks
By Olga Naidenko and Sydney Evans
Residents of communities near industrial-scale hog farms in North Carolina face an increased risk of potentially deadly diseases, Duke University scientists reported in a study released this week.
By Sacoby Wilson
As U.S. livestock farming becomes more industrial, it is changing rural life. Many people now live near Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)—large facilities that can house thousands of animals in close quarters. Neighbors have to contend with noxious odors, toxic emissions and swarms of insects, and have had little success in obtaining relief—but this could be changing.
Ready for some inspiration? Check out this video of a press conference that took place earlier this month in Iowa.
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The DC Circuit Court ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tuesday to close a loophole that has allowed hazardous substances released into the environment by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to go unreported.
Waterkeeper Alliance and 13 North Carolina Riverkeeper organizations have launched a new video campaign that captures the struggle of community members living with the impacts of industrial farm pollution.
The True Cost of Industrial Meat Production raises awareness of environmental injustices being perpetrated against North Carolina's most vulnerable populations and features powerful, first-hand accounts of community members, esteemed scientific experts and local people on the ground. This campaign shows the devastating impacts to public health, quality of life and local waterways caused by industrial animal agriculture.
The campaign is comprised of nine short videos:
- The True Cost of Industrial Meat Production: An overview of what is happening in North Carolina, where industrial animal production has taken the place of family farms.
- Wasting Away: Highlights the problem of industrial animal waste and how the pork industry is not being held accountable to dispose of it correctly.
- Belly Up: How waste generated by industrial meat production is decimating North Carolina's waterways and in turn, killing its fish and ecosystems.
- Birthright: Community members whose families have lived on their properties for generations talk about the heritage of their land and how it has been overtaken by industrial agriculture and animal waste.
- Prisoners: Residents discuss how they have become prisoners in their own homes due to the impacts of pollution from industrial animal production, which make it nearly impossible for them to enjoy their property.
- Mislabeled: How the pork industry deceives consumers with its marketing tactics and labeling of its products.
- Bullied: Duplin County resident Elsie Herring talks about how she has been intimidated and threatened by the pork industry to remain silent about the injustices she and her family faces.
- Silenced: The pork industry intimidates by bullying and seeking to silence the people most affected by the impacts of its pollution.
- The Value of Land: The pork industry's refusal to dispose of its waste in a regulated and more sustainable manner has decimated people's property values, making them unable to move.
This video campaign also expands on the recent landmark report and GIS initiative by Waterkeeper Alliance, North Carolina Riverkeeper organizations and Environmental Working Group that shows the location and waste outputs of more than 6,500 swine, cattle and poultry operations throughout North Carolina.