McDonald’s hamburgers aren’t the only things disseminated from factory farms anymore. A new study out of Texas shows that antibiotics, feedlot-derived bacteria and DNA coded for antibiotic resistance are traveling off-farm, too. (Gulp.)
The study published by The Institute of Environmental & Human Health at Texas Tech University is extremely timely given a number of lawsuits filed last month, asking courts to make the Environmental Protection Agency do something about factory farming. While the air and water around concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have never been considered clean, the EPA hasn’t tried regulating it for whatever reason.
In 2009, the Humane Society of the United States petitioned the EPA, and in 2011, the Environmental Integrity Project petitioned the agency to regulate about 20,000 factory farms under the Clean Air Act, which would reduce ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter and other air pollutants. The EPA never responded to these petitions, instigating the organizations—plus the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Food Safety, Clean Wisconsin, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Association of Irritated Residents—to take action.
Beef to Back Up the Claims
The Southern High Plains, where the Texas Tech study took place, is a windy bit of land. Incidentally, so are a lot of the flat, open areas where CAFOs are often located. This wind can pick up bad-news particles and carry them off to far-away places—as far as hundreds of miles, and possibly even around the world.
The study isn’t a total shock: When you have farms producing between 1.2 to 1.37 billion tons of waste each year, there’s bound to be some bad stuff released into the environment. In fact, there’s so much to know about how CAFOs are affecting communities that the National Association of Local Boards of Health has a 30-page publication explaining it all. The hazardous effects of factory farming are certainly being noticed. Here are just a few stats that will make you cringe:
- Livestock is responsible for 34 percent of U.S. methane emissions, a leading cause of environmental damage.
- Poultry operations in the top-10 chicken-producing states release at least 700 million tons of ammonia annually. Ammonia causes nose, throat and eye irritation; respiratory issues; dizziness; and more health problems.
- Dairy and swine CAFOs emit 100,000 pounds of hydrogen sulfide annually, contributing to extreme odors, acid rain and regional haze.
- From 1982 to 1997, the number of U.S. farms with confined livestock fell by 27 percent, while the number of animals raised in CAFOs increased by 88 percent. The number of CAFOs increased by more than half.
- There are approximately 20,000 factory farms in the U.S. today.
With this information, along with heightened public awareness of antibiotic-resistant bacteria resulting in part from antibiotic overuse in livestock, the organizations suing the EPA might have a good case. While overreaching government oversight isn’t something that’s nice to think about, neither is blatant disregard for environmental and human health in the name of meat production.
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