Should We Fear the Factory Farm?

Massive livestock operations are raising troubling questions about water safety

Should We Fear the Factory Farm?Illustration: © Pierre-Paul Pariseau

Long after Walkerton, Ont., where E. coli from cattle manure is thought to have contaminated the water supply with fatal results, many rural Canadians continue to wonder about the impact livestock farming can have on groundwater. And the growth of factory farms — what governments call intensive livestock operations — has further unsettled farm communities from New Brunswick to Alberta. Unlike the family enterprises of old, which cared for 20 pigs or 60 cattle, these new facilities operate on an entirely different and inadequately regulated scale.

Beef Barons

Thirty years ago, thousands of farmers throughout Alberta regarded the care of 100 cattle as a big deal. Today, 70 beef barons, largely concentrated north of Lethbridge in an area known as Feedlot Alley, manage more than one third of the province’s beef-cattle production. As a result, just one feedlot may have as many as 25,000 cattle. As one of Alberta’s feedlot kings puts it: “Unless you get big, you’re squeezed out. This whole corporate thing is just snowballing.”

Factory farming has also radicalized the country’s multibillion-dollar hog industry in Ontario, Quebec and the West. In 1976, 18,622 Ontario farmers raised an average of 103 pigs each. By 1996, 6,777 managed an average of 418 animals each. And just two percent of Ontario’s hog factories accounted for nearly a quarter of the 4.6 million hogs produced in the province that year.

And big just keeps getting bigger. An Asian firm, the Taiwan Sugar Corporation, for example, is proposing to build an 80,000-hog operation near Hardisty, Alta. Local citizens are concerned about the amount of untreated waste it will create — equivalent to that produced by about 240,000 people.

Into the Danger Zone

The sheer size of these operations has raised questions about water quality and threats to public health. Manure from factory farms often contains a variety of heavy metals, lake-choking nutrients and deadly pathogens such as E. coli 0157. In fact, in certain areas where factory farms have concentrated industrial piles of manure in small spaces, big trouble has followed.

No one knows this better than Dr. Paul Hasselback, the medical officer for Alberta’s Chinook Health Region, home to Feedlot Alley and the nation’s largest concentration of livestock — and a region plagued by chronic health problems and water-quality concerns. “There is a substantial risk out there,” he notes. “There just isn’t a framework to develop these industries in a sustainable fashion.”

The market forces that are erecting animal factories across Canada are simple. For starters, it is far cheaper to export steak and pork than to ship grain or corn. Thanks to abundant feed grains, Western Canada can now produce bacon more profitably than most other regions in the world.

Livestock factories have generated intense opposition in rural Canada. Living next to one can be unpleasant: In addition to the stench of manure, neighbours complain about increased traffic, flies, dust and noise. But much of the resistance focuses on fears about water pollution. And for good reason. The growth of animal factories, aided by provincial incentives, has created industrial-scale waste problems. A farm producing 18,000 pigs a year can create as much effluent as a town of almost 60,000 people without a waste-treatment system.

Hog waste goes to open-air lagoons before it is sprayed on the land. Beef factories aren’t much better. A 25,000-head feedlot produces in excess of 50,000 tonnes of dung a year. That, too, is just spread on land bases, which must be sufficiently large to absorb the nutrients. Too small a land base may be unable to use all the nutrients, causing runoff and saturation.

Les Klapatiuk runs a Calgary firm specializing in water treatment. He says that not a single government in Canada has adequate legislation to deal with these volumes of animal waste. “The leakage from lagoons can be incredible, and when you spread millions of gallons of waste on a field, it can contaminate the surface water. If a city or an oil company operated this way,” he says, “they would be shut down.”

All this manure has already taken a costly toll on waterways. A 1998 federal study found half of 27 Alberta streams in key agricultural production areas exceeded water guidelines for nitrogen, phosphorus and disease-carrying bacteria. According to a 1992 study, about 30 percent of rural wells in Ontario were susceptible to contamination with pathogens.

David Schindler, a leading expert on water and an ecologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, believes Canada’s cavalier attitude towards water quality will prove calamitous. In a paper published last year, he predicted that pollution from agriculture and other sources, including habitat destruction, will end all freshwater fishing in 50 years, while the nation’s drinking-water supply will be in dire straits within a century. “Country after country has gone down this path,” he says. “Why aren’t we learning from other people’s mistakes?”

Is our health being compromised? In a study published in 2000, Health Canada mapped cattle densities and the incidence of E. coli infections in rural Ontario only to discover that six counties with a high cattle density — with Walkerton located right in the middle — routinely registered the highest rates of E. coli 0157 infection from 1990 to 1995.

Residents in Alberta’s Feedlot Alley have the highest rates of intestinal disease in the province. In a three-year period from 1989 to 1991, E. coli 0157 killed almost a dozen children and afflicted scores more in southern Alberta’s cattle country.

The public-health costs of hog factories are equally daunting. A survey conducted recently in the United States found that people living downwind from them in North Carolina — where such operations originated — experienced more headaches, runny noses, sore throats, excessive coughing and diarrhea than residents of a community without hog factories. According to other U.S. studies, as many as 70 percent of all workers employed by hog barns suffer from bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses due to the corrosive nature of hog waste.

Ottawa’s Inaction

In the United States, where factory farms have polluted parts of the eastern seaboard and poisoned scores of communities, state and federal governments have increased their scrutiny of large operations. The EPA has specifically targeted concentrated animal-feeding operations located in priority watershed areas for inspection by September.

Some believe that Canada, however, hasn’t followed suit. With the exception of a pending national program for uniform standards for hog operations and funding on manure research, Ottawa has been largely absent from the debate over factory farms. Ottawa’s involvement is limited to a federal-provincial subcommittee on drinking water, which regularly updates guidelines for water safety. But those guidelines are not legally enforceable, and critics say Ottawa has failed to take responsibility, leaving control of water to the provinces, where budget cuts and downloading to municipalities have led to a disturbing lack of uniformity in monitoring, enforcement and public disclosure.

There are stark contrasts in how provinces and territories go about trying to keep their water safe. Spring floods in the Yukon usually result in “boil water” warnings being issued without waiting for test results from wells. But most governments wait for those test results before issuing “boil water” advisories. Quebec issues an average of 600 a year. Other provinces generally issue far fewer. In 1999 Alberta was typical, issuing only two orders. Some provinces, including Ontario and Nova Scotia, do not even keep a registry of how many times communities are forced to boil water.

Nor is there a standard procedure for sharing test results among different levels of government. When contaminants are found in water, labs in most provinces report results directly to the provincial government, while Quebec relies on its municipalities to inform government officials when something is wrong.

Sometimes the public is left out of the loop. In November 1999 Newfoundland’s then environment minister, Oliver Langdon, held back information from CBC following its request to obtain levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) in the province’s drinking water, saying he needed the municipalities’ approval to do so. (Carcinogenic THMs are the by-products of treating water high in organic matter with chlorine.) Two months later, after a series of news reports, Langdon angered Newfoundlanders when he held a media conference to say 63 communities tested between 1995 and 1999 had THM levels above the recommended limit, some as much as four times higher.

Despite their image as centres of pollution, metropolitan areas may have safer tap water than their smaller neighbours. Big cities can afford sophisticated water-treatment plants, which effectively guard against microbes, says Barry Thomas, a retired Health Canada official who served on the federal-provincial guidelines subcommittee. “Leaving small towns on their own in handling water treatment, which is so critical to public health, is irresponsible,” Thomas says.

The last federal budget promised some hope for cleaner water. It contained provisions for $2 billion in funding for municipal infrastructure over the next six years, with contributions from territories, provinces, municipal governments and the private sector. Ultimately some $3 billion will be spent on green infrastructure with this program. Agreements have been concluded with every province and territory, while talks are under way with Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. And it is up to the provinces to ensure watersheds are kept safe from increasingly intense livestock farming.

Critics agree that provincial governments should cap livestock density in many regions. And many rural Canadians want to see animal factories regulated and taxed for what they are: industries.

Canada also needs laws that recognize that E. coli 0157 and other pathogens have forever changed the nature of manure. Many experts also recommend that animal waste should always be properly treated before it ever leaves the barn.

Most producers support higher standards simply because disasters like Walkerton aren’t good for business. Last but not least, David Schindler would also like to see federal funding restored for freshwater research as well as comprehensive management plans for the nation’s watersheds. “Walkerton,” he concludes, “should have been a wake-up call — for the entire nation.”

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