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July 27, 2011

Report tallies "Big Chicken" toll on Bay


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)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:01 AM | | Comments (7)


No one should advocate for measures that enable the poultry industry to expand on the Delmarva Peninsula without accepting responsibility for its waste stream, when our watersheds are being choked by an industry that not only dumps billions of pounds of manure on the land but annually puts millions of pounds of ammonia into our air to add to the nitrogen pollution in our waterways. Are environmental NGO's actually endorsing the burning of chicken litter without a statewide ban on the use of arsenic in chicken feed first? Now we can look forward to breathing arsenic as well as letting it leach into our streams and groundwater. Why are the contracted growers forced to be the responsible party for the waste when the corporations they are contracted to control every other aspect of the product being produced? Until the corporate giants are forced to accept financial responsibility for their waste, no amount of government subsidies (our taxes!) or voluntary incentive plans are going to work. You'd think this lesson would have been learned over the past 25 years.

The Baltimore Sun should do a story about how environmental regulations have killed family farms on the eastern shore.

Something that wasn't mentioned in the article is the fact that industrially produced poultry is raised with routine, sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics that contribute significantly to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria that has significant impacts on human health. In addition, up until Alpharma pulled Roxarsone, almost all broilers were fed arsenic which resulted in approximately 22,000 lbs of carcinogenic arsenic being spread on MD farm fields annually.

The industrial production of food has huge costs in human health, water quality and air quality. At the present time, the integrators internalize their profits and externalize their costs, that is to say the public at large pays. Until the integrators are forced to deal with all of the costs of their method of production, society will be paying the price for cheap chicken in the market.

Drew Koslow, Choptank Riverkeeper

@Bill - Don't more family farms go out of business because of the prevalence of factory farming? We don't have family farms any more, we have growers. We don't farm chickens we grow them. The growers don't even own the birds they take care of, and are barely being paid enough to pay their bills. The factory farm system is the problem, not environmental regulations that protect they bay, and all the jobs associated with it.

why not turn all the chicken manure into biogas.

Chicken manure is worthless as fuel. Studies have been done, and it takes almost as much energy to dry the stuff to the point it will burn as it makes when you burn it. Pure chicken waste is also a poor fertilizer, unless you dilute it 2 or 3 times over. Otherwise it will burn out your lawn.
Yes, the chicken growers have gotten the short end of the stick in this whole thing. Purdue and others have succeeded in giving away all the liability and most of the risk related to their industrial operations. They have created a virtual monopoly on the chicken industry that allows no competition and gives growers no recourse. I would say an anti-trust suit may be in order here. If the chickens are the property of Purdue, then it is their responsibility to pay for the expense of both raising them and dealing with their waste. I know they own 1/2 the Maryland state legislature and enough of Congress that they are mostly bulletproof, but something needs to be done here. Not only have family farms disappeared on the Eastern Shore, but the oyster and fishing industies in the Bay have all but died out. They used to be staples of the local economy, and now they are just a sideline.

The PEW Charitable Trust came onto the peninsula last December to develop this piece of propaganda. They produced a 36 page document to take the family out of agriculture and replace it with factory so that it sounds less personal. in that same amount of time I raised 1,4 million pouinds of chicken. You can eat what I produced, what can you do with what they produced?

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About the bloggers
Tim WheelerTim Wheeler reports on the environment and Chesapeake Bay. A native of West Virginia, he has focused mainly on Maryland's environment since moving here in 1983. Along the way, he's crewed aboard a skipjack in the bay, canoed under city streets up the Jones Fall from the Inner Harbor, and gone deep underground in a western Maryland coal mine. He loves seafood, rambles in the country and good stories. He hopes to share some here.

Contributor Christy Zuccarini has been blogging about the local DIY craft scene for a year for She brings her pespective on all things handmade to B'More Green, where she will highlight projects you can do yourself as well as crafters who are integrating sustainable methods and materials.

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