Chicken nuggets, chicken burgers, buffalo wings, fried chicken, Double Down chicken burger—chicken in all its edible forms floats through our imaginations and into our hungry stomachs. The two-legged, heavy-breasted, factory-farmed birds now provide the most popular meat in America. In its new report, “Big Chicken,” the Pew Environment Group puts the numbers to the environmental cost of that growing appetite.
The statistics are staggering. Consider these from the report:
- In 1950, more than 1.6 million farms raised just under 600 million chickens for the consumer market.
- In 2007 just over 27,000 farms raised 8.9 billion chickens.
- Virtually all broilers are raised on contract within 25-35 miles of the mills that provide their feed and the processors that dispatch and package them.
- The Broiler Belt stretches “from eastern Texas through Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and much of the Southeast and north to Maryland and Delaware.”
That’s a lot of chicken manure in a concentrated area. While a good source of nutrients for crops, especially nitrogen and phosphorous, the staggering heaps of manure are far too much of a good thing. The excess nutrients create major environmental headaches.
“Big Chicken” points to the Chesapeake Bay as an example of the scope of the problem. While agriculture is only one contributor, “In May 2010, the EPA reported that an estimated 19 percent of excess nitrogen and 26 percent of excess phosphorous were directly linked to animal manure in the watershed.”
Poorly managed manure and inadequate regulations have led to significant losses of resources such as rockfish, blue crabs and oysters. Data shows “that more than half of the streams in the watershed are rated as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor,’ bereft of snails, insects and other low-level organisms critical to a healthy aquatic environment.”
The Chesapeake Bay is only one watershed. Everywhere Big Chicken and its Big Ag relatives operate, the same story is repeated. The Pew report concludes industrial agriculture must reform its practices, and regulators must put teeth into their oversight.
The “Big Chicken” report calls on public officials to put a stop to the industry’s often-repeated threat to move operations to states with minimum pollution safeguards. These threats serve only to undermine efforts to protect water supplies and rural communities, and to force elected officials and policymakers to establish ‘race to the bottom’ standards that benefit no one.”
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Photo from USDA