A new report says the industrialization of poultry farming over the last several decades is a major source of pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways around the country.
"Big Chicken," released Wednesday by the Pew Environment Group highlights how poultry production has increased and become more concentrated, taking an environmental toll. And despite heavy government subsidies to farmers to reduce runoff of animal manure from their fields, the report argues tighter limits are needed - including a cap on the density of birds being raised in places like the Delmarva Peninsula.
Nationwide, the number of broiler chickens raised annually has soared 1,400 percent in less than 60 years, the report says, while the number of farms raising birds has dropped by 98 percent in the same time. The growth in production is driven by rising consumer demand for what the group says has become the most popular meat in the United States. The average American today eats 84 pounds of chicken a year, the report notes, more than twice what each consumed in 1970.
But the increase - and increased density of growing operations - has had environmental impacts. Farms raising 605,000 birds a year - twice what they did 25 years ago - are producing millions of tons of manure, which overwhelm the ability of limited local croplands to absorb all the fertilizer, the report's authors say. Growers in Maryland and Delaware alone, they note, produce enough waste to fill the U.S. Capitol dome nearly once a week.
"Industrial production means industrial levels of pollution," says Karen Steuer, Pew's director of government relations.
The chicken "litter" produced by all those farms - a mixture of manure and wood shavings left behind after each flock is trucked to the processing plant - is widely used on Delmarva to fertilize corn, soybeans and other crops.
Farmers have been required to follow "nutrient management plans" that supposedly prescribe only as much nutrient-rich fertilizer as the crops can consume as they grow, but studies have found buildups of nitrogen in ground water and phosphorus in soils, where it can make its way to waterways and the bay.
And the Pew report notes that a recent assessment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that almost every acre of farmland in the Chesapeake watershed that's fertilized with animal manure needs better management of that waste. According to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, 19 percent of the excess nitrogen and 26 percent of the excess phosphorus responsible for the bay's massive oxygen-starved dead zone this summer comes from animal manure in the watershed - including cows and hogs as well as chickens.
Government efforts to reduce manure-related pollution haven't been enough so far, the report's authors contend. Despite EPA rules requiring discharge permits for large chicken farms, it's unclear how many actually will be subject to tighter regulation. And the ones bearing the burden of those rules are growers - often individuals and families who go deeply into debt for buildings and equipment to raise the birds under contract to poultry companies, with no guarantee of help.
The Pew report calls for making poultry corporations like Salisbury-based Perdue share the cost and legal responsibility for proper management of the manure.
"Here in Baltimore you're paying a sewer tax," Steuer said, referring to the fee paid by utility customers and septic tank owners alike. "Everybody's paying across the board," she added, "except (the poultry companies)."
The Washington-based environmental group also want tighter monitoring and regulation of manure hauled away from chicken farms for use on croplands elsewhere. And it advocates imposing an overall cap on the density of birds that can be raised in areas like the Delmarva where there's already a great concentration of them.
The report is likely to draw praise from other environmental groups, who've long argued that the poultry industry has not fully addressed its pollution of the bay. At least one group, though, qualified its endorsement. Doug Siglin, Washington lobbyist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised the report for "shining a light on the fact there are too many chickens and too much chicken manure" for the bay.
But Siglin said he considers it politically unrealistic to push for a cap on chicken density or for holding poultry companies accountable for the growers' waste. Those proposals have been raised before, he said, and beaten back by industry supporters. Instead, the Annapolis-based environmental group favors seeking more federal aid for farmers and the industry to find alternative uses for the manure, such as burning it for fuel or converting it to pellets for shipment and use in lawn or garden fertilizer.
Pew's findings and recommendations can be expected to draw a hostile reaction from farmers and the poultry industry, who argue they have made great strides - voluntarily and under orders - to reduce their environmental impact. Some probably will point to the recent bankruptcy of Allen Family Foods on the Delmarva as evidence the industry is in a fragile state and cannot bear the costs of additional cleanup mandates.
But Pew's Steuer disputes the comparison. "Allen didn't go out of business because of environmental regulations," she said. "It went out of business because of the (increasing) price of corn" often fed to the birds.
To read the full report, and see more graphics, go here.
(Eastern Shore chicken house, 2008 Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum; graphics by Pew Environment Group)