Report describes water pollution caused by poultry production
Broiler chickens are produced by the millions in industrial facilities concentrated in just a handful of states, and much of the waste they produce ends up polluting the nation’s waterways. These are just two issues highlighted in a new report released this week by the Pew Environment Group.
“In just over 50 years, the broiler industry has been transformed from more than 1 million small farms spread across the country to a limited number of massive factory-style operations concentrated in 15 states,” said Karen Steuer, who directs Pew’s efforts to reform industrial animal agriculture. “This growth has harmed the environment, particularly water, because management programs for chicken waste have not kept pace with output.”
The report, “Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America,” compiles and analyzes 50 years of federal and state government data to describe a business that the organization says has been remade by industrialization.
Key findings identified in the report include:
• In less than 60 years, the number of broiler chickens (which are raised for their meat) raised yearly has skyrocketed 1,400 percent, from 580 million in the 1950s to nearly 9 billion today.
• Over the same period, the number of producers has plummeted by 98 percent, from 1.6 million to just over 27,000, and concentrated in just 15 states.
• The size of individual operations has grown dramatically. Today, the typical broiler comes from a facility that raises more than 600,000 birds a year.
• In 2007 — the most recent year that data is available — Sussex County produced more than 211 million broilers in 714 operations on 234,324 acres of cropland – 903 broilers produced each year for each acre of cropland. Kent County produced 4,933,000 broiler chickens in just 11 reported operations. Kent County has 101,394 acres of cropland and thus there are 49 broilers produced in the county every year for each acre of cropland. (More information on counties in Delmarva can be found at www.pewenvironment.org/bigchicken.)
According to the Pew report, “Big Chicken” describes the emergence of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the environmental impact of the industrial-scale production.
“The process creates massive amounts of broiler litter, the mix of manure and bedding taken out of the CAFO. Growers typically dispose of litter by spreading it on open fields or cropland, but when it is overapplied or poorly managed, rain washes it into streams and rivers, causing significant water-quality problems,” reads the report.
“A case in point is the Chesapeake Bay, which is infused with excess nutrients generated by broiler litter from the adjacent Delmarva Peninsula. Maryland and Delaware alone produce roughly 523 million chickens a year, along with an estimated 42 million cubic feet of litter — enough to fill the U.S. Capitol dome nearly 50 times annually, or almost once a week.”
“The environmental consequences of the broiler business’s explosive growth are especially profound in the Chesapeake Bay, one of the nation’s most important, scenic and threatened bodies of water,” said Robert Martin, an expert on industrial animal agriculture reform at the Pew Environment Group. “Instead of working to limit the effects of all this chicken waste, the industry has fought to avoid responsibility for cleaning up one of our national treasures.”
To address the environmental toll of industrialized poultry production, the Pew Environment Group recommends:
• Limits on the density of animal production based on the capacity of crops to absorb nutrients in a given area, especially in areas without alternatives to managing the animal waste.
• Shared financial and legal responsibility between poultry growers and corporate integrators (the large corporations that contract with growers) for managing waste.
• Monitoring and regulation of waste transported off CAFO sites.
• Requirements for all medium and large CAFOs to obtain Clean Water Act permits.
More information on the rise of “Big Chicken” can be found online at www.PewEnvironment.org/BigChicken. The Pew Environment Group is the conservation arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nongovernmental organization whose stated goal is to work globally to establish pragmatic, science-based policies that protect the oceans, preserve wildlands and promote clean energy.