More Than Something in the Water

Personally, I’d prefer a future to a hamburger any day. Please email this to a meat-eater.

More Than Something in the Water - Ontario landscape

In the last week of May 2000, a new strain of the E. coli bacteria contaminated the water supply of a small Ontario farming community. Six people died and up to a thousand people were crippled by cramps, severe vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. The people of Walkerton have just launched a billion-dollar lawsuit against their own town. Now it’s time to assign blame. Who let this happen? Who didn’t test the water more carefully? Who’s responsible for this?

It’s not too difficult to see that this catastrophe stems from human error. But whether or not it was Stan Koebel, the town’s manager of Public Utilities Commission for not testing the water more frequently, the human error factor runs much deeper than these most recent and relatively minor technicalities. It’s quite a wonder that such outbreaks don’t occur all the time.

The Recipe for Disaster

Over the past ten years, southern Ontario — much like other farming regions across North America — has become home to a new type of agriculture. It’s called factory farming. It distinguishes itself from past forms of livestock agriculture by its sheer scale. For instance, an intensive hog farm can hold up to 3500 or more pigs. A typical chicken operation stuffs thousands of birds into stacks of cages (thus allowing them to crap all over the chickens below). And cattle feedlots involve hundreds of cows crammed into small spaces… eating and er — crapping.

What is common to all operations is the manure. Animals packed into factory farms produce TONS of it… literally. Ontario’s 3.8 million hogs produce as much raw sewage as the province’s 10 million people. And while the laws for human waste are quite strict, the rules for animal excrement are more vague and have been poorly enforced. True, it is illegal for a farmer to dump raw sewage into a stream — but an inspector must actually catch him.

Residents of the area surrounding Walkerton banded together 2 years ago in a failed attempt to stop factory farming from moving into their area. They feared the manure from these farms would leak into the drinking water. Ultimately, they were right.

These “factories” are sprouting up much like mushroom patches. In 1998 there was only one intensive hog farm in the Ontario county of Ashfield, now there are 10. Farmers are provided with guidelines for storing and spreading manure- but these guidelines are not mandatory, they are recommended. If one wants to spread manure in the winter, so that in the spring it runs off the thawing land into the Great Lakes- there is nothing to stop him. They need not neutralize dangerous bacteria in the manure. If a farmer wants to spread the stuff just before a heavy rain, he is free to do so. But the biggest problem is that these livestock warehouses produce way more manure than can ever be used on the nearby fields… and there is absolutely no where to put the manure.

Manure Happens

The town of Walkerton just so happens to be in the middle of Ontario’s cattle country. There are 5 feedlots within a 5-mile radius of the town. Four are smaller lots, with approximately 200 cows each. The fifth feedlot holds 2500.

In the small lots, the manure is piled. In the larger one, it is liquefied and stored in a holding tank. In all cases, the manure is supposed to be spread on fields. Again, there are no rules — even though the industry and the government have actually known about the presence of the deadly bacteria, E. coli 0157:H7 for some time. The Cattlemen’s Association website is filled with references to the bacteria, which was identified as a threat in 1994.

Although a recent study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that one third of U.S. cattle contained E. coli 0157:H7, the presence of this bacteria is only a tiny symptom of a large and continuously growing problem. It’s just a short matter of time before nature breaks under the enormous strain of factory farming and plays hardball with us.

If one reads the newspapers in Toronto, one would see that an isolated incident of gross negligence is being blamed for this mini-catastrophe. But the real cause of this mini-catastrophe is a much-bigger catastrophe. A virulent strain of E. coli is just a tiny symptom of the disastrous effects factory farming will have on the world in the very near future. This outbreak of E. coli, is at best, a warning flag. Sadly, it seems however, that the sleepwalking-slowpoke government officials are into approving more factory farming to improve the economy, or because they own meat industry stocks, or they accept meat industry donations. Whatever their financial reason is, it’s clear they don’t know how to think ahead.

This E. coli incident is not due to one man’s negligence, it’s due to an entire society’s negligence. People must choose to inform themselves or else these agents of death and destruction will go about their greedy way.

Deep Manure

If there’s no place to put the manure, where is it going and what is it doing? The answers are frightening.

Manure, which is rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, accelerates the growth of algae, which chokes other aquatic life. So the constant run-off of manure into the Great Lakes and other waterways can have a devastating effect on the lake region’s ecosystem. As it now stands, farms have surpassed factories as the biggest polluters of North American waters.

According to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. generates 1.4 billion tons of animal manure per annum. That is 130 times more than the yearly production of human waste. Where can you find this secret? Well, it’s in giant pits of shit that the factories are now calling “lagoons”. These toxic pits can be as vast as 10 acres and as deep as 30 feet. Gases like methane and ammonia bubble to the surface and poison the air. Millions of gallons have spilled into waterways and wells. Let’s just say this wasn’t nature’s arrangement.

In 1995 alone, 35 million gallons of animal waste (3 times more than the Exxon Valdez oil spill) leaked into state waterways, killing 10 million fish.*

In Maryland, chickens outnumber people 59 to 1 and produce 350,000 tons of manure annually. Much of it ends up in the Chesapeake Bay and is now the single greatest threat to the water quality of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.*

In California, 1600 cattle farms in Central Valley generate more waste than the entire state of Texas.*

A consortium of firms led by Smithfield Foods of Virginia is planning a mammoth factory in southwest Utah that is designed to produce 2.5 million hogs per year, with a waste output exceeding that of Los Angeles.*

In the province of Alberta, cows outnumber people 2 to 1.

Factory farming is not a small problem.

The Animals

The animals’ existence in these factories is as grim as the environmental ruin resulting from them. Animals are raised in warehouses the size of football fields. The sows live in cages so small that they can’t even turn around. The floors are metal grates, and the waste is flushed into huge pits — a.k.a. lagoons. The air is so thick and toxic in these warehouses that most hogs suffer from respiratory diseases. And their space is so cramped that many suffer from arthritis. After 6 months of being stuffed with corn, soybeans, and chemicals, the hogs are off to the slaughterhouse. This is their existence. *

Chickens and turkeys have been genetically altered to grow twice as fast and twice as large as their ancestors. Hundreds of millions of chickens die each year before reaching their slaughter weight at 6 weeks old. This is because of heart (and other organ) failure resulting from organs not being well-developed enough to support their abnormally large bodies. Both birds suffer from crippling leg disorders due to their heaviness.*

Because of market demand, turkeys are anatomically manipulated to have larger breasts. So large in fact, that turkeys cannot mount and reproduce naturally. Now their only means of reproduction is artificial insemination.*

Cows don’t have it any better. Stuffed into dirty manure-covered pens, respiratory diseases are rampant. They are branded and injected with growth hormones. Many die, become sick, or are injured during transport as they are forced to endure the trauma of overcrowding, thirst, hunger, and long journeys.

All animals are stunned (often imprecisely) at the slaughterhouse. Then their throats are slit, and they are hung by their feet to bleed to death. If the stunning process (usually a hit over the head) fails to have its effect, the animals flail about until they are again knived in the throat.

No Upside

Is there anything good about the meat industry? Quite simply… no. If people had better control of their appetite, perhaps they could stop supporting this monstrous and dysfunctional machine. And perhaps if people had less greed they would be able to establish a relationship with their conscience and act accordingly. As it is, the farming industry is going full-speed-ahead towards an ecological disaster. Let me rephrase that — the farming industry IS an ecological disaster.

The fact that the media in Toronto is going stir-crazy trying to figure out who exactly is responsible for E. coli getting into the drinking water is an indication of the media’s constant urgency for top-selling stories. The real picture is huge and looming over the busybody’s busy pointing fingers. The truth is that there is no place for all the shit — the planet is only so big. Rapidly it is seeping into and contaminating all of our resources — the air, the water, and the land. It is altering fragile ecosystems. It is brewing and spreading disease. It is cruel and inhumane. It is unethical in every way.

*facts from Ken Silverstein, co-editor of Counterpunch, a Washington DC-based investigative newsletter.

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