China’s giant cow farms leave neigh­bors up milk creek

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Giant piles of black ma­nure tow­er­ing over corn­fields, while ran­cid-smelling ef­flu­ent from thou­sands of cows spills onto the land-this is the price of a glass of milk in China yes­ter­day. Large-scale dairy farms have boomed in the Asian giant, as its near 1.4 bil­lion con­sumers over­came cen­turies of cul­tural re­luc­tance to em­brace the white fluid. An eco­nomic boom and gov­ern­ment back­ing trans­formed dairy into a $40-bil­lion-a-year in­dus­try, shift­ing pro­duc­tion away from small-scale pro­duc­ers to­wards mas­sive mega farms with up to 10,000 cat­tle-and a lot more waste.

“The smell of the ma­nure... in the sum­mer it’s very in­tense,” said Ren Xiangjun, a farmer in Gannan county. Point­ing at a stream of green wa­ter es­cap­ing from un­der a grey brick wall at the giant farm owned by agro-con­glom­er­ate Feihe In­ter­na­tional, he added: “You can see how it flows right out of the farm. Dodg­ing pack­ets of an­i­mal medicine and sy­ringes lit­tered nearby, he ex­plained: “The rub­bish left af­ter in­jec­tions is just thrown here. My land is di­rectly af­fected.” When the Feihe farm opened in 2012 in the grassy hills of the north­ern prov­ince of Heilongjiang it said it had 10,000 cows.

In Dax­ing vil­lage next door, a woman also sur­named Ren said: “You can see the ma­nure piled up like a mountain. There are no ad­van­tages for us. There is just pol­lu­tion and noise.” The dairy in­dus­try in China has posted av­er­age yearly growth rates over 12 per­cent since 2000, due to ris­ing wealth and de­sire for the health ben­e­fits of cal­cium. The rul­ing Com­mu­nist party fanned the ex­pan­sion, with for­mer Premier Wen Ji­abao in 2006 ex­press­ing a “dream” that Chi­nese chil­dren should enjoy a daily 0.5 kilo­grams of dairy prod­ucts.

But a 2008 scan­dal over baby for­mula tainted with the in­dus­trial chem­i­cal me­lamine saw six chil­dren killed and more than 300,000 others af­fected, shak­ing con­fi­dence in the in­dus­try. The cri­sis was blamed on small-scale farm­ers us­ing chem­i­cals to in­flate the pro­tein con­tent of their milk as they scram­bled to meet de­mand. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment re­sponded by de­mand­ing the cre­ation of large-scale milk pro­duc­tion units. “They thought if we have scale farms they are eas­ier to reg­u­late and in­spect,” said David Ma­hon, founder of a Beijing-based in­vest­ment firm spe­cial­iz­ing in dairy.

Un­bear­able

There are large scale farms in other coun­tries, such as New Zealand, but rarely with more than 3,000 cows at a sin­gle fa­cil­ity. By 2014 China boasted 56 farms with 10,000 cows or more, ac­cord­ing to state me­dia — 80 per­cent of the global to­tal-cre­at­ing a string of pol­lu­tion prob­lems in sev­eral prov­inces. Es­ti­mates say that just 3,500 cows can pro­duce 100,000 tons of fluid waste and ef­flu­ent a year. Chi­nese farms are re­quired to process it into fer­til­izer, but reg­u­la­tions are of­ten flouted. “There are some ar­eas of China that it’s bet­ter to visit in win­ter, be­cause of the small hills of ef­flu­ent. Once it thaws it’s un­bear­able,” said Ma­hon.

“China is learn­ing about dairy farm­ing and the lack of ex­pe­ri­ence has re­sulted in such things.” In Gannan res­i­dents alleged that lo­cal of­fi­cials prof­ited from the farm and took no ac­tion against pol­luters. AFP was not able to ver­ify the claims and lo­cal food of­fi­cials could not be reached for com­ment. But at­ti­tudes may be start­ing to shift. The vice-head of China’s state­backed Dairy As­so­ci­a­tion, Yang Liguo was cited in 2014 as say­ing “The big­ger the scale, the big­ger the en­vi­ron­men­tal, pol­lu­tion and bio se­cu­rity prob­lems.” Ma­hon said there had been a “gen­uine re­think” in Beijing and the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment was “look­ing more and more to 350 head farms”.

Like a mountain

Pack­ing more an­i­mals to­gether in­creases the risk of ill­nesses such as bru­cel­losis, which can spread to hu­mans and cause arthri­tis. Feihe em­ployee Wang Dali, who once mucked out cow­sheds at the farm in Gannan, con­tracted bru­cel­losis in 2012, leav­ing him un­able to work, and now suf­fers near-con­stant pain in his joints. He blames his in­fec­tion on poor san­i­ta­tion. “The cows were packed very close to­gether,” he said, es­ti­mat­ing each had about 12 square me­ters. “There was no way to treat the ma­nure. We dug a big hole close to the fa­cil­ity... now it has piled up like a mountain.”

Feihe de­nied the res­i­dents’ al­le­ga­tions, with a woman who an­swered the phone at its Gannan of­fice say­ing: “These things are im­pos­si­ble.” Dis­mount­ing from a trac­tor a stone’s throw from the ma­nure piles in Dax­ing, one farmer said: “The pol­lu­tion hasn’t been cleaned up well. Of course it has an im­pact.” Point­ing to corn stalks grow­ing be­side sy­ringes, he added: “We don’t eat these ourselves. We sell them to the mar­ket.”—AFP

CHINA: This pic­ture shows a worker driv­ing a trac­tor amongst cows in­side a dairy farm near Gannan county, Heilongjiang prov­ince. —AFP Pho­tos

CHINA: This pic­ture shows an area strewn with rub­bish and cow ma­nure in front of a dairy farm (in back­ground) in Gannan county, Heilongjiang prov­ince.

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