Intensive livestock operations, feedlots, concentrated animal feeding operations, or factory farms; whatever you chose to call them, they produce most of the meats we consume. In an effort to increase profits and decrease costs, producers are replacing many small livestock operations with fewer larger ones. These huge operations can have tens of thousands of animals confined in an area the size of a city block. When multiple feedlots are concentrated in a single area, the number of animals could be in the millions.
Advocates of intensive operations say they are necessary to maintain the profitability of the industry. Cost efficiency and economy of scale are terms used to defend the necessity of feedlots. Consumers demand inexpensive meats, and governments look to the job creation potential of the industry, therefore, feedlots are continuing to grow in both size and number. This trend is a concern to many groups who are worried about the environmental impacts associated with putting so many animals in such a small space, not to mention the potential consequences to the health of the people who live nearby.
So what happens when you put that many animals together?
The most obvious result of high animal concentration is the sheer volume of waste produced in a relatively small area. A feedlot containing 25,000 animals produces more than 50,000 tonnes of manure per year. This is equal to the waste produced by a city of 250,000 people. A large hog operation can produce more waste than the City of Los Angeles. A U.S. EPA study determined that in 1992, about 2.07 trillion pounds of manure was produced in U.S. livestock operations. These amounts are indeed staggering.
Manure contains a large amount of nitrogen and phosphorus, which makes it an excellent fertilizer. For this reason, it’s spread on fields both to enrich the soil and to dispose of it. The problem is that feedlots produce far more manure then the crops need, so the excess nutrients can end up in the ground or surface water, resulting in negative environmental impacts. Runoff or infiltration from factory farms can also foul streams and contaminate groundwater with large concentrations of harmful bacteria.
Confining a large number of animals in a small space promotes the spread of diseases. To combat this, producers use a great deal of antibiotics and other drugs. A large percentage of these drugs pass through the animal’s body and ultimately become a component of the waste. If this enters ground or surface water, it can affect environmental and human health.
What are the environmental impacts?
In addition to nitrogen and phosphorus, manure has been found to contain organic material, antibiotics, hormones, heavy metals, and microorganisms such as E. coli, cryptosporidium, and giardia. Each of these greatly impacts environmental and human health. U.S. EPA studies have shown that feedlots contribute significantly to the pollution of surface and groundwater, and have also been suspected to be involved in the contamination of drinking water wells with nitrates and harmful bacteria.
When excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus enter surface waters, eutrophication of lakes and streams can occur. Accelerated plant (especially algae) growth occurs resulting in negative impacts to the aquatic ecosystem, such as reduced sunlight penetration and decreased growth of beneficial plants. When this extra plant material decays, oxygen is depleted and fish and other organisms begin to die, thereby decreasing biodiversity. Blue-green algae blooms can also be toxic to fish.
Nitrate contamination of groundwater has been detected when too much manure is spread on fields. Studies have found high nitrate levels in groundwater under feedlots, indicating that contamination was indeed occurring. Nitrates have been linked to human health conditions.
Antibiotics, pesticides, hormones, and trace elements in manure are linked to a wide variety of environmental and human health problems. Samples taken from surface waters close to feedlots have been found to contain measurable amounts of these compounds. High fecal coliform counts have also been seen in surface waters around factory farms, thus creating health risks.
Methane emissions from the animals themselves and also from anaerobic waste lagoons are suspected to be contributors to global warming. A large amount of ammonia is also produced in concentrated animal operations. Ammonia gas released into the air can lead to the production of acid rain, and ammonia flowing into surface waters can have serious impacts on aquatic organisms.
What is being done to improve the situation?
Researchers are attempting to develop animal feeds that will reduce the nutrient content of manure. This will help to reduce the nutrient load on the environment and hopefully prevent some of the negative effects of nutrient pollution. However, it only addresses one problem associated with feedlot operations.
To their credit, some producers are recognizing the need to control the problem with better manure management procedures, and improved waste treatment methods. However, environmental impacts are still profound and all too common yet. There is definitely a great need to have a close look at the whole industry.
Some would say that to prevent the kind of environmental pollution feedlots cause, they should be highly regulated, restricted, or even eliminated entirely. If the industry is not willing to find ways to prevent contamination, strict regulations do need to be created and enforced.
But is total elimination realistic or even possible? Are we willing to change our lifestyles? We must grow the food we need in a sustainable manner, but how much are we willing to pay for our food? How much are we willing to pay to save our environment, and our own health? These are questions we need to ask ourselves.
Rick de Vries is the Director of Development for the Fresh Outlook Foundation. He has a background in research and environmental sciences, and has many years of experience writing and editing for environmentally related media.