How can industrial-scale agriculture reduce its environmental footprint?

In a new report by Environment America, an advocacy group, five agribusiness giants are put under the spotlight for their impact on US waterways. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Holstein and Jersey cows graze in a field with a stream running through it at The Farm at Wheeler Mountain, a small grass-based dairy, on May 25, 2016 in Barton, Vermont. Major sources of pollution in US waterways stem from corporate agriculture, according to a new report.

Rivers, streams, lakes, and coastal waters of the United States face various threats through human activities, not least of which is the bane of pollution. One of the major sources of contaminants that can upset the natural balance is industrial output, including large-scale agriculture, particularly if the processes and discharge are poorly managed, according to a new report from Environment America

The environmental advocacy organization considers five of the biggest businesses involved in corporate agriculture, looks at their impact on the nation’s waterways, and outlines ways in which the situation could be improved.

“The numbers in the report are really compelling, astoundingly high,” John Rumpler, senior attorney with Environment America and author of the report, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a telephone interview. “The public has no idea.”

But there are potential solutions. While the report does indeed spend time picking apart the practices of major agribusiness firms, it also devotes time to fleshing out proposals for how both corporations and regulators – state and local government – can address the issues and move toward a more environmentally sustainable future.

The report details three main measures of environmental impact: manure production, chemical runoff from crop production, and the direct dumping of “toxic discharges” from slaughterhouses and processing plants. The main thrust of its findings is that farming itself is not inherently toxic, but the industrialization of the process, particularly the concentration of food production in “factory farms,” has created a system in conflict with the natural environment.

To some extent, these arguments are supported by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal agency that seeks to “protect human health and the environment.”

The EPA combats “agricultural nonpoint source (NPS) pollution,” which it defines as distinct from industrial discharge or pollution from sewage treatment plants, but rather pollution that comes from “many diffuse sources.” Essentially, NPS pollution occurs as rainwater or snowmelt moves through the ground and picks up pollutants, carrying them into waterways.

This agricultural runoff pollution, says the EPA, is “the leading source” for water quality impacts on rivers and streams, the second largest contributor to wetland impairment, third largest for lakes, and a major contributor to contamination of estuaries and groundwater.

Coming in for particular criticism in Environment America’s report is the chicken-producing behemoth Tyson, coming out “top of the polluter pile,” as Mr. Rumpler puts it. The company produced more than 55 million tons of manure per year and dumped 104 million pounds of toxic pollutants into waterways between 2010 and 2014, according to the report.

Tyson itself takes exception to the report’s assertions. Spokesman Worth Sparkman calls them “egregiously inaccurate and misleading” in an email exchange with the Monitor, describing water as a “critical natural resource,” and pointing to the company’s water management programs and experts. 

While Environment America’s report is, at its core, an effort to involve consumers in the debate about how the nation’s food is produced, another group of people that wields considerable influence is investors.

For the past eight years, the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment (TRICRI) has been working on behalf of one of Tyson’s shareholders, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, engaging with Tyson to reduce the environmental footprint of its operations.

“Tyson shows strong concern for reduced water consumption,” Mary Beth Gallagher, TRICRI’s associate director, tells the Monitor in a phone interview, “but we believe risk needs to be reduced with relation to water pollution.”

Other companies in the firing line include Cargill and Perdue. A spokesman for the former, Mike Martin, tells the Monitor in an email exchange that Cargill is “continuously exploring technologies that may help us further reduce our environmental impact.” Julie DeYoung of Perdue says, also in an email, that any “discharges from our processing facilities are within their permitted and regulated limits and fully comply with all state and federal laws.”

One of Rumpler’s primary concerns is the vast quantity of manure produced by large-scale agriculture, which threatens to overload the local environment. But he concedes that Perdue is addressing the issue by making pellets from manure and shipping them elsewhere, potentially serving a need in areas that, rather than being overburdened by the nitrogen and phosphorous contained in the manure, are actually in need of extra fertilizer to boost productivity.

Leaving aside the numbers, the accusations, and the rebuttals, what opportunities are there to improve the health of waterways and coastal regions? Environment America highlights two kinds of entities that can have a significant impact: agribusiness, by modifying their methods, and regulators, both at the state and federal level.

For the former, proposals include limiting operations in areas already under environmental stress, moving away from factory farms toward free-range models, and removing excess manure from its area of production, as Perdue is already doing.

As for governmental organizations, they could ban the “worst practices,” such as leaking waste piles and lagoons, better enforce environmental laws, and give local communities more power to approve or reject proposed industrial-scale agriculture facilities.

“It’s a tough road to hoe because corporate agribusiness has incredible political power,” says Rumpler. “The most important thing is to educate the public because that’s how we build political will.”

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