Fac­tory farms pro­vide food for U.S., but na­ture suffers

Antelope Valley Press - - FRONT PAGE - By JOHN FLESHER AP En­vi­ron­men­tal Writer

AKRON, Iowa — In re­cent years, Fred Zenk built two barns hous­ing about 2,400 hogs be­tween them — long, white, con­crete-and-metal struc­tures that are ubiq­ui­tous in the Mid­west­ern coun­try­side.

The Iowa farmer didn’t fol­low state re­quire­ments to get con­struc­tion ap­proval and file a ma­nure dis­posal plan. But Zenk’s op­er­a­tion ini­tially flew un­der the radar of reg­u­la­tors, as have many oth­ers across the United States be­cause of loop­holes and spotty en­force­ment of laws in­tended to keep the na­tion’s air and wa­ter clean.

Beef, chicken and pork have be­come more af­ford­able sta­ples in the Amer­i­can diet thanks to in­dus­try con­sol­i­da­tion and the rise of farms with tens of thou­sands of an­i­mals. Yet fed­eral and state en­vi­ron­men­tal agen­cies of­ten lack ba­sic in­for­ma­tion such as where they’re lo­cated, how many an­i­mals they’re rais­ing and how they deal with ma­nure.

The an­i­mals and their waste have fouled waters. The en­clo­sures spew air pol­lu­tants that pro­mote cli­mate change and are im­pli­cated in ill­nesses such as asthma. The stench of ma­nure — stored in pits be­neath barns or ope­nair la­goons and even­tu­ally spread on crop­lands as fer­til­izer — can make life mis­er­able for peo­ple nearby.

For most of the na­tion’s his­tory, meat and dairy prod­ucts came from in­de­pen­dent farms that raised an­i­mals in barn­yards, pas­tures and range­land. But the sys­tem now is con­trolled by gi­ant com­pa­nies that con­tract with farm­ers to pro­duce live­stock with the ef­fi­ciency of auto assem­bly lines in­side ware­house-like barns and sprawl­ing feed­lots.

The spread of cor­po­rate an­i­mal farms is turn­ing neigh­bor against neigh­bor in town halls and court­rooms. Iowa, the top U.S. pro­ducer of swine and egg-lay­ing chick­ens, has been a ma­jor bat­tle­ground.

“It’s a fight for sur­vival,” said Chris Pe­tersen, who still raises pigs in out­door pens.

Michele Merkel, a for­mer EPA at­tor­ney who quit over the agency’s re­luc­tance to pun­ish pol­lut­ing mega-farms and is co-di­rec­tor of the ad­vo­cacy group Food & Wa­ter Jus­tice, said the in­dus­try “has avoided any ef­fec­tive reg­u­la­tion and ac­count­abil­ity for a long time.”

In­dus­try groups say there are plenty of reg­u­la­tions and live­stock agri­cul­ture is sim­ply adapt­ing to im­proved tech­nol­ogy, equip­ment and meth­ods.

“We’re re­spond­ing to what the mar­ket is giv­ing us,” said Brady Re­icks, whose com­pany runs nu­mer­ous large hog struc­tures in north­east­ern Iowa. “We’re do­ing it re­spon­si­bly; we’re pas­sion­ate about do­ing it. It in­creases growth in ru­ral Iowa and it helps feed the world.”

The U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency be­gan to count the na­tion’s fac­tory farms dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion but re­treated when in­dus­try groups sued. In­stead, the agency uses state data to pro­duce an­nual statis­tics about only the big­gest op­er­a­tions.

As of 2018, the na­tion­wide EPA tally was about 20,300 — a roughly five-fold in­crease over nearly four decades.

Yet it’s a tiny frac­tion of all con­fined an­i­mal op­er­a­tions. The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture es­ti­mates there are more than 450,000, most too small for in­clu­sion in the EPA count.

Iowa has 80 mil­lion farm an­i­mals and 3 mil­lion peo­ple. Yet in 2017, reg­u­la­tors didn’t know how many live­stock farms were in the state. Un­der fed­eral pres­sure, the Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources pored over aerial pho­tos, dis­cov­er­ing 4,200 pre­vi­ously un­known fa­cil­i­ties.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Oct. 29, 2018, photo, Jeff Schwartzko­pf, of Rudd, Iowa, looks at the con­cen­trated an­i­mal feed­ing op­er­a­tion, or CAFO, built near his home in Rudd, Iowa.

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