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Poultry and Environment; Lessons Learned

        Sanet -- The Sunday "Washington Post" (6/1/97) contains an
excellent, long page one article entitled "Poultry Poses Growing Potomac
Hazard."  The reporter, Eric Lipton, may be moving down the same path that
led to Jody Warrick's Pulitzer Price for the series in 1994 on concentrated
hog operations in North Carolina.  

        The story goes over the history of the expansion of the poultry
industry in Virginia and West Virginia, providing clear factual explanations
of the enormous impact the industry has had on jobs, economic growth, and
pollution. Several new studies and findings from USGS and university
research are reported.  An example -- A James Madison University biologist,
Bruce Wiggins, calls the fecal coliform levels found in a series of stream
tests "extraordinary." One stream had 424,000 colonies per 100 milliliter;
the state's standard allows 200.  Water this contaminated makes people sick
with regularity.  Half of 104 drinking water wells tested had N over 10 ppm,
almost all from excessive manure applications on fields.  

        A USDA survey found that 75% of the farmers in counties with heavy
poultry populations had inadequate storage and manure management systems.
Throughout the upper headwaters of the Potomac River system -- the story
includes an excellent map -- poultry wastes, from manure, dead birds
disposed on farms, and processing waste from the slaughter plants -- are
polluting groundwater which feeds springs, surface water that flows into
small creeks, and tributaries of the Potomac, a river which flows past
Washington, D.C., providing the city its major source of water, and
ultimately contributing to backsliding in the clean up of Chesapeake Bay. 

        Despite overwhelming evidence of a potentially serious public health
problem, and a rather easy task determining its general cause, steps taken
by state agencies and federal regulatory officials have been all voluntary,
with apparently little consequence on the industry's size and location.  The
article gingerly discusses the politics -- how unlikely it is for local
officials to clamp down on an industry accounting for 80% plus percent of
the jobs in some counties.  The Hardy County Sanitarian, Lee Thompson
addresses the issue in this a quote (below text is how it appears in paper): 

        "Whenever people...stick their noses out, they tend to get slapped.
It is a big industry, and you have to tread lightly." 

        The reason this story is on the front page of the "Washington Post"
is that new scientific evidence suggests that some bacteria can survive the
10-day float along the river to Washington, D.C. when the river is moving
fast and the temperature is low.  Many D.C. residents remember the 1993
water contamination episode when the District's water filtration system
broke down, leading to a city-wide call for people to boil their water. Just
to drive home the point, the article also briefly recounts developments in
Milwaukee with cryptosporidium, and suggests "it could happen here."

        The way the article is crafted reminds me of the Ordram (molinate, a
rice herbicide) episode in the Sacramento Valley in the early 1990s.  This
herbicide was being widely used in rice fields north of Sacramento.  Applied
to flooded fields, the herbicide controlled grass weeds, but then was
flushed from he fields into the ditches, canals and river systems feeding
into the Sacramento River, ultimately coming out in the drinking facets in
the California Capitol building, and the rest of town.  Ordram left an
unpleasant taste in the water which became unmistakable to all residents for
a 4-6 week period, leading to research on what was going on up-river.  Fish
and wildlife biologits documented very large fish and aquatic organism
deaths from the herbicide, but it was the sense of violation felt by
legislators directly experiencing one of the problems they were charged with
addressing that galvanized action.  The story of what happened next to solve
the problem -- a real success story -- is fully documented; a brief version
is told in the 1993 report "Challenge and Change" I wrote with a colleague
on California's Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR). Much more detailed
information is available from the DPR -- see their excellent web page for
leads and how to get the report.  

        What's the point?  First, major shifts in ag production, especially
concentrated livestock and poultry production, is causing major
environmental problems in the usually poor, sparsely populated rural areas
where these industries seem to locate.  Government programs and policy,
tax-dollars, and the sincere commitment to conservation of most farmers is
and will continue to deliver major gains in environmental quality and
sustainability, but in areas where the scale and intensiveness of
agriculture profoundly out-grows the capacity of the soils and environment
to manage waste, degradation in both is the inevitable outcome. A few states
are beginning to honestly confront the politics of this reality in the
debate over whether to allow vertically integrated hog operations to replay
the North Carlina story.  

        Second, in areas far removed from state capitals and Washington,
D.C., relatively high levels of environmental degradation and exploitation
of people and communities is tolerated as the price of sustaining jobs.  But
in areas where trouble flows down-river to where politicians and their
families might be impacted, a different political dynamic often takes over. 

        Third, systems and technologies exist to raise, process and deliver
food to consumers without degrading soils, the environment, and abusing
farm-workers and people on slaughter plant lines, and these technologies and
systems will deliver often higher quality, safer foods to consumers with
imperceptible impacts on food prices.  Study after study shows that the cost
of avoiding waste and pollution is almost always less than the benefits
gained from more efficient systems that build soil productivity, lower waste
management problems and expenses, and improve the healthfulness of the work
place and nearby communities.  The problem is NOT economics nor a lack of
science and knowledge, it is a lack of political will and social concensus.
But the changes required to retool agriculture and food industries where
they have grown out of proportion to the assimilative capacity of the
environment -- natural and human -- will get in the way of some companies
maximizing profits for a few years.  As long as society is willing to accept
and pay for the hidden costs of the way we do "business" in producing and
processing food, there will be little reason for those profiting from
current practices to change. A few business leaders have and will continue
to do so out of a strong personal commitment to values other than maximizing
profit, but the reality is that managers who work for shareholders are by
law required to maximize the return to those shares (and pay off the debt
incurred as corporations grow by buying up other companies).  Those business
leaders and managers that take actions deemed inconsistent with the goal of
maximizing money returns per share will not last long, and in extreme cases
could even go to jail for failure to adhere to their fiduciary
responsibilties.  As more and more of production ag and the food industry is
controlled by large companies that are publicly traded and bound by security
laws, the greater the pressure on managers to pay attention most closely to
the goal "maximize profits."  In time politicians are going to have to deal
with the issues arising from the incongruent ability of today's laws and
public instititions to effectively reduce the adverse impacts of
agricultural/food processing operations of differing sizes.  The debate over
the herd size limits in the just-released EQIP regulations is just the
beginning of what will be an enoromously complex and tough series of similar
debates and decisions by USDA and EPA re whether and how to deal with the
environmental impacts of large livestock and poultry operations.  


        Unrelated topic, but this sounds like an interesting article about
plant defense mechanism and soil quality -- 

From: IPMnet NEW      June 1997         Issue no. 42

"Insect Feeding on Cucumber Mediated by Rhizobacteria-Induced
Plant Resistance," Zehnder, G.W., _et al_. ENT. EXP. ET APPLI.,
83, 81-85, 1997.  *  Greenhouse trials revealed that, when given
a choice between cucumber plants (_Cucumus sativus_) treated with
plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria, or untreated plants, cucum-
ber beetle (_Diabrotica undecimpunctata howardi_ Barber) showed 
a marked preference for the untreated samples. PGPR might thus
provide a promising mechanism for inducing plant resistance to
certain pests.  <#>


Charles Benbrook                         202-546-5089 (voice)
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