I enjoy pretty much everything there is that has to do with the outdoors. Some of my most peaceful moments have been while walking through the forest, sitting on a beach, or boating (minus the loud engine). Accordingly I have a great respect for nature and enjoy learning about the plants and wildlife therein. My plan is to continue that learning process and hopefully enhance it by sharing what I learn. I intend for this blog to serve many purposes, but in the immediate future it will be a place for me, and hopefully others, to share ideas about reducing our individual impact on this planet, protecting wild spaces, and in general just to comment on the things we enjoy most in the great outdoors. I welcome all opinions as otherwise you cannot consider every aspect of a subject. However, I would ask that every opinion be expressed in a respectful way and considered with an open mind. Often there is no single right answer. Thanks.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Factory Farming: Environmental Impact

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Farm Sanctuary by Gene Baur, which was the book I mentioned in my post A Couple of Recent ReadsI started the book with some trepidation and, as I suspected, it was not an easy book to read.  There were some heartwarming stories of animals rescued from stockyards and other terrible situations, but the information provided about the conditions in which most farm animals live was eye opening to say the least.  In this post I want to take a look only at the environmental impacts of factory farming, but I cannot simply ignore the despicable conditions that most farm animals are raised in so I will cover those in subsequent posts. 

The book focuses on factory farming in the United States, but I was curious about the environmental impacts closer to home.  Without too much trouble I found an article published on September 25, 2007 in the Vancouver Sun called Factory farming cruel to animals and hard on the planet, too.  The article refers to a study released by the BC Agriculture Council which found "high to very high environmental risk" levels of nitrates in the soil of some Valley Farms.  The article also refers to unnamed studies that point to agriculture as being the source of nitrates in the Abbotsford aquifer.  Also mentioned was the high levels of ammonia from livestock manure which are released into the air and react with other chemicals to form particulates harmful to respiratory health.  The issues of ammonia and nitrates are also mentioned in a more recent article in the Vancouver Sun entitled Agriculture fuels the Fraser Valley's White Smog published on August 30, 2010.

The issue of nitrates in the Abbotsford aquifer is the subject of many studies undertaken over the years.  I found reference to the levels of nitrates in a Cost of Ground Water publication from 1994 and also a page on the Environment Canada website entitled Nitrate Levels in the Abbotsford Aquifer, which was last updated in 2004. The Environment Canada website indicates that testing of this aquifer has been ongoing since the 1950's.  These are just two of many sources that come up when you type "nitrates in abbotsford aquifer" in the search box of your browser.  From what I understand the increasing amount of nitrates is in large part due to the amount of manure being produced by livestock on Fraser Valley farms.  The Environment Canada site has some graphs that illustrate how the numbers and composition of animals raised in this area has changed over the years.  Also contributing to the issue is the difference in the types of crops being grown as they have moved from nitrogen absorbing grass hay and pasture to small fruit crops. 

There are regulations in place to deal with the large amounts of manure, such as storage facilities with concrete floors, covered manure piles, and removal of manure to interior farms.  Oddly, or perhaps inevitably, the practice of trucking out manure and moving towards inorganic fertilizer just changed the source of the nitrates and did not solve the problem.  The August 2010 article goes into further details about the implications for the Abbotsford Aquifer in particular, but as you can imagine this problem is not unique to the Fraser Valley.  There are factory farms all over the world that have the same issue.  How to dispose of the large quantities of waste produced by so many animals in relatively small amount of space.  A question I have not yet found the answer to is what the difference is in waste from animals that have been raised in a pasture compared to the waste from animals routinely fed unnatural diets, and copious amounts of antibiotics and hormones?  What happens to those compounds as they run into aquifers and streams?

The second issue mentioned in these two articles is the ammonia produced by animal manure.  The reaction of the ammonia with other particles in the air result in the white haze over the Fraser Valley.  My brother and I just took my kids to Cultus Lake this past week and we both commented on the hazy air and lack of long range visibility.  We wondered if it was smog blowing in from the city.  According to the August 2010 article "intensive production of chickens, pigs and cattle contribute about 80 per cent of the atmospheric ammonia that reacts with other pollutants to form the unsightly smog".  I guess we cannot entirely blame the car emissions.  According to a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization called Livestock's Long Shadow, which was published in 2006, animal farming is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  To fully understand the way they came up with this number you would have to look at their report.  In their calculations they include such things as land-use changes (deforestation), manure management, energy used to produce fertilizer, etc. 

Another site that takes an in depth look at the overall environmental impact of meat production is Veg.ca.  Their article from February of 2007 looks at several topics including the amount land required to support a meat-based diet as opposed to a plant-based diet and the conflict between agriculture and wilderness.  At the bottom of the page they also provide links to other articles related to the negative environmental impacts of factory farming. 

There is a huge amount of available information that supports the idea of reducing the amount of meat in our diet.  The issues surrounding factory farming include environmental impact, poorly treated animals, and your general health.  Choose an issue that strikes a chord in you and do a bit of research.  It is too easy to turn a blind eye and continue to follow our regular habits and I would suggest that it takes more strength and determination to change those habits.  My recent reading has made for some interesting conversations at my house.  We certainly enjoy eating meat, but have found enough reasons to at least start reducing our consumption.  We have started to incorporate more whole grains and vegetables and I intend to find some new recipes, either vegetarian or vegan, to continue the trend...

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