What do a no-drink order in Toledo and a backlash against factory farming have in common? A lot, as it turns out. Residents of Ohio’s fourth-largest city were advised for multiple days earlier this month to refrain from drinking their tap water because it had been contaminated by toxic algae. As residents struggled to deal with their contaminated water supply, the culprit behind the problem became readily apparent: factory farms. The Ohio Agriculture Advisory Council (OAAC) is proposing a regulatory crackdown that could forever change industrial farming practices in this Midwestern state.
The chain between factory farms and contaminated drinking water is a long one. It starts with confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where animals are kept in close quarters in order to maximize production. This generates a huge volume of waste, which is stored in massive lagoons like the one seen above. That waste isn’t treated, however, and when those lagoons overflow or contaminate groundwater, the result is a release of waste filled with a variety of potentially infectious organisms — and nutrients that algae and plants love to feed on.
This causes a phenomenon known as nutrient pollution (another culprit for nutrient pollution is fertilizer runoff from industrial agriculture), where waterways become choked by organisms that are growing out of control because they’re getting far more nutritional support than they usually do. They can out-compete native species and totally change aquatic environments. And they can cause drinking water contamination, which leads to large-scale no-drink orders like the one that just happened in Toledo.
While factory farming is bad news for a number of reasons (not least of which is animal welfare), this is a huge problem — and it’s one that is very poorly regulated. Limited restrictions on how waste is collected, controlled and treated exist, and inspectors are overstressed with demanding schedules, which leaves few opportunities for monitoring farms in their regions. As a result, farms can store manure in unsafe conditions with few repercussions. Despite multiple record-breaking waste spills in regions across the United States, regulators have been slow to act on the problem. CAFO operators aren’t required to treat their waste, and often pass the responsibility for cleanup on to government agencies and other parties, sometimes escaping without even a fine for their activities.
Speaking on behalf of OAAC and as vice-president of the Ohio Farmers Union, Bill Miller says that: “To have less pollution and begin cleaning up the lakes, we must have fewer factory farms and begin returning to a more traditional system of agriculture where animals are treated like more than mere production units. Our water, the animals, our health and our rural communities will all be better off for it.”
His argument is a compelling one, even though it’s been made countless times across the country. Along with the Humane Society of the United State, he’s firing a shot across the regulatory bow, demanding that Ohio lawmakers sit up and take notice. Environmental organizations, animal welfare groups and family farmers all agree that it’s time to put an end to the CAFO, and the recent incident in Toledo might become a flashpoint, if this statement is any indicator. Can advocates successfully pressure Ohio legislators to overcome the industrial agriculture lobby and change the face of farming in their home state?
Given that legislators shifted regulation of CAFOs from the state’s EPA to its Department of Agriculture in the early 2000s, getting tighter regulations might seem like an uphill battle. But environmental groups are fighting back, questioning whether the legislation complied with the Clean Air Act, and demanding a moratorium on the discharge of CAFO waste. If they’re successful, their work could result in closer scrutiny of CAFOs, and a change of habit for legislators who have long supported industry over their state’s environment.
Photo credit: Friends of Family Farmers.