Video Written, Produced, Filmed, and Edited by Sierra Glassman
On a sunny summer morning in 1998, residents of Chesapeake Bay started to get ready for their day. But, something was off. They crinkled their noses at the sickly smell permeating their homes. Not knowing where it came from, they searched their pantries for rotten foods or dead mice. As soon as they stepped outside to catch a whiff of fresh air, a wave of rot wafted over them. In the bay, thousands of silvery shining bodies blanketed the water. The sky was feathered white and writhing with cackling gulls.
Hi, I’m Sierra with Eat For the Earth, and in series we will learn about the relationship between animal agriculture and the environment.
The people of Chesapeake Bay experienced a fish kill caused by an algae bloom that sucked up the oxygen from the water. Fish kills continue to happen more and more frequently in the bay. One of the major causes of this frequent armageddon is…chicken poo. The algae loves the plentiful nitrogen and phosphorus contained in their manure. And Maryland has lots of chickens in barns that have barely regulated sanitary conditions. Currently, farms in Maryland raise and kill 300 million chickens a year who produce 600 million tons of manure a year.
While nitrogen and phosphorous are useful elements in fertilizer, when applied in amounts more than soil can absorb, they can runoff into waterways causing those algal blooms and fish kills. In 2019, over half of poultry farms in Maryland self-reported dumping illegal levels of manure on crop fields. No penalties or fines were issued to the farms, though.
Furthermore, 84% of farms failed their initial general sanitary inspections. Two-thirds of them between 2018-2020 violated regulations through unsatisfactory manure management. For example, leaving piles of chicken manure next to the water. The total fines handed out each year are less than ten thousand dollars, though the Maryland poultry industry makes over 6.5 billion a year.
This lax treatment of factory farms has resulted in nitrogen and phosphorous pollution and algae blooms across the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The water quality of which has remained over the safe pollutant levels defined by the state for the past couple of decades. The state departments barely enforce their regulations, while the government gives the farms subsidies. This costs public health and the coastal ecosystems. This lax action and even support is mirrored by states and countries across the world. There must be a change.
Phosphorous and nitrogen are not the only polluters in chicken manure. Chicken poo is especially high in ammonia. When The Sierra Club sued Tyson Chicken for pollution the lawsuit was settled for a study, which found that just two chicken factories in Kentucky emitted over 10 tons of ammonia within one year.
Ammonia can cause waterway acidification, which directly harms carbonate organisms like clams and corals, and reduces the ability of fish to sense predators. This alters and harms ecosystems. 50% of worldwide acidification is caused by animal agriculture in general. Not only does manure fertilizer pollute, many of the plants that are fed to animals use synthetic fertilizers, which are biggest cause of dead zones in the ocean.
Industrial farming is the worst culprit of water pollution in the US. Currently, almost half of the United State’s rivers are polluted. Livestock creates 2.7 trillion pounds of manure in the US alone. That’s 31 tons per second! Each farm can produce 2,800-1.6 million tons of manure a year, the large ones making more waste than large cities. Together, all US animal farms are estimated to produce 3-20 times the amount of waste as all humans in America.
98% of pigs in the US live in factory farms. In these operations, pigs are kept on slat floors, and their poop drops into a trough under the building’s floor. The trough is periodically flushed into a euphemistically dubbed “lagoon.” Lagoons are where most animal manure is stored, and they often leak. When lagoons are full, or if it is time to empty them, farmers opt to spray the manure onto fields, often overloading the soil so that it also leaks nitrates, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, and bacteria-infested fecal matter into water supplies.
Excess nitrogen like that produced by chickens can cause a myriad of human health issues, including “blue-baby syndrome” where nitrogen binds to hemoglobin, taking the place of oxygen, similar to carbon monoxide poisoning. Manure also contains pathogens like E. Coli.
When manure is sprayed onto fields it also emits airborne particles of deleterious substances like ammonia and nitrous oxide. Also, factory farms cause higher rates of breathing issues like asthma in children. Since there are lots of insects like flies attracted to factory farms, there is a higher chance of disease being spread from the livestock to humans.
As you’d expect, people living in communities near these poop plants and factory farms have lower life expectancy in general, even when adjusted for many socioeconomic factors. And, since nobody wants to work at these facilities, factory farms are disproportionately built in oppressed and underemployed communities.
A different way of disposing of manure comes in the form of an integrated pig and fish farm. Yeah, you know where this is going. An innovative way to minimize pig farm waste is by feeding that waste to fish that people eat. Pig poo has lots of nasty stuff in it that can bioaccumlate in the fish. But, what if I told you this gross method is more environmentally friendly than feeding the fish, uh, fish food?
What is so bad with the food we feed farmed fish? Well, every year, a fifth of the world’s wild-caught fish are processed into fishmeal and fish oil, 70% of which are fed to farmed fish. Up to five pounds of wild-caught feed fish are needed to produce just one pound of salmon or bass meat. This inefficiency combined with the rising demand for fish meat has caused massive overfishing of essential species like sardines. Around 50% of the world’s fish supply comes from factory farms. Fish farming also degrades the surrounding soil quality, making it hypersaline and useless to grow any crops. Like terrestrial farms, many chemicals are also emitted by fish operations like fertilizers, antibiotics, and pesticides.
Salmon tightly confined in these factory farms are often infested by sea lice. These insects literally eat the fish alive. And, they can spread to wild fish, threatening native salmon populations with extinction. Fish farming doesn’t benefit wild fish and ecosystems, it contributes to the decline towards extinction of some fish species and the destruction of habitat.
Catching wild fish isn’t great, either. Fishing gear is one of the biggest causes of ocean plastic pollution. Over 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is discarded each year. Up to 70% of all ocean macroplastics are related to fishing. 86% of the megaplastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch consist of fishing nets. Fishing is also incredibly wasteful–up to 40% of all fish caught–63 billion pounds–is bycatch and is discarded.
From the info I’ve provided so far, you may think the big commercial operations are only to blame. But, it turns out that an estimated 12% of wild-caught fish are from recreational fishing (excluding fish caught for subsistence). Recreational fishing impacts ecosystems as well, with lead sinkers causing waterbird death and the vegetation trampling done by anglers harming flora. Massive amounts of fish are caught at the expense of ecosystems only for almost half of them to be thrown away
So, chicken poo kills oceans. Along with meat, dairy, aquaculture, and fishing. In a survey by Cargill, 44% of Americans and British people said they have started to eat more fish due to health and concern with food sustainability. Eating fish is not the solution to the harm done by animal agriculture in general. Animal agriculture causes a cycle of pollution and ecosystem destruction within our waterways. Even recreational fishing impacts ecosystems. In order to stop the destruction of waterway ecosystems and disproportionate health impact of factory farms on poor communities, the demand for animal products must fall. Maybe you can pray for a technological lab-meat revolution to fix everything sometime in the future, but, right now, boycotting the meat, dairy, and egg industries is one of the best ways to stop animal ag from continuing to deceive people and destroy nature.
Sierra Glassman is a recent high school graduate and Eat for the Earth summer 2022 intern. She has a passion for birds and has been accepted into UC Berkeley to study integrative biology starting Fall, 2022. She is spending her summer creating an educational video series for Eat for the Earth’s YouTube channel. During her brief time with the organization, she has researched and written three grants, had one approved (so far), created a plan for the series and an ad campaign, and is launching the third video today!