Factory farms can produce more raw waste than large U.S. cities, threatening not only water quality but air quality as well. Both the number of factory farms and animals fed in confined feeding lots has more than tripled in 20 years, and yet the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to roll back already weak pollution regulations.
That's the gist of a new Government Accountability Report on factory farming out today, and the interpretation of the Democratic Senators who requested it.
There were 12,000 concentrated animal feeding operations -- CAFOs, or more simply "factory farms" -- holding 890 million animals in the United States in 2002, up from 3,600 farms raising 257 million animals in 1982.
A single farm, raising 140,000 head of cattle, can produce 1.6 million tons of manure every year, more than is produced by Houston, Texas.
This waste can infiltrate nearby streams, rivers and lakes, contaminating it with bacteria or excessive nutrients that could render the water unswimmable, undrinkable and inhospitable to wildlife. The waste releases gases to the air -- including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and fine dust -- that can cause respiratory illness or other health problems.
Yet, the report concludes, the EPA lacks data it needs to effectively regulate these farms, even as it has proposed lifting pollution reporting requirements for air pollutants from factory farms and proposed limiting its authority to penalize factory farm water polluters.
"This GAO study confirms that the Bush Administration's plan to exempt industrial sized animal feeding operations from emissions reporting requirements is nothing more than a favor to Big Agribusiness at the expense of the public health and communities living near these facilities," said Rep. John Dingell, one of the senators who requested the GAO study.
In May, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production concluded a two-year study that detailed how cheap feed had led Americans to eat more meat than any other nation on Earth. It urged new regulations to rein in the growth of factory farms, lest they sap fresh water, pollute the environment, or continue contributing to global warming (livestock is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions).
The recent spate of E. coli-tainted beef health scares can also be traced to concentrated animal feeding, an unnatural corn-based diet and the factory slaughtering process.
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