Growing animals for consumption is a huge task that requires great environmental investment. This “investment” causes a multitude of environmental problems like deforestation, overgrazing, and soil erosion, among others (see Land degradation: Role of Overgrazing for more). But the environmental problems do not end there. Even after an animal farm has been successfully established, you can create many more environmental problems. One such problem is waste management.
And they poop a lot. A lactating cow can generate 150 pounds (~70 kilos) of excreta everyday. That’s more poop than I weigh! And if you think about most farms which often hundreds of animals (cows, pigs, fowl, it doesn’t matter)………that’s….a lot.
So what do the farmers generally do with all this manure? Well, in the United States, there are certain rules regarding this. Farmers are supposed to come up with a Nutrient Management Plan. This excreta is valuable manure that can be used in crop farms, and a decent number of animal farmers contribute this manure to the organic industry and other environmentally conscious non-organic farmers. But in most cases where a farmer does not have to be part of this plan (rules vary in different states), or if we talk about factory farms, the environmental pollution happening is enormous.
What do factory farms do?
Most factory farms collect all the excreta into a pond called the slurry lagoon. This lagoon is partially filled with water, but most of it is just animal waste. The wastes are concentrated in many heavy metals and are highly concentrated in nitrates, a highly soluble nitrogen compound. This collection happens every single day. The water for this pond is generally sourced from nearby rivers or groundwater. The waste gets dissolved in this water over time.
When the pond reaches maximum capacity, the farmers generally collect this water (which already has dissolved animal waste in it) and spray it in nearby fields.
The heavy metals and the nitrates enter the soil along with this sprayed water. Since they are highly soluble compounds, they are very easily leached by percolating water into the groundwater. It causes massive groundwater pollution.
Now, groundwater is extremely spread out in most cases. Areas up to 4 km away can often have the same groundwater source. When such polluted groundwater makes its way into the water resources of human settlements, it results is the spread of many diseases.
This pollution doesn’t happen only when the farmers spray the lagoon water. In times of rains, if the lagoon overflows, the water (along with dissolved wastes) enter into the soil and land systems, making the place unsuitable for any plant form. Their spread is not limited to the vicinity of the lagoon; overflows can spread across large areas.
Many a times, these lagoons are connected to natural ponds, lakes or worse, rivers. The toxic chemicals from the wastes find their way into these natural ecosystems and heavily degrade them. It can reach such extreme levels that no life can be sustained in these systems anymore. If, God forbid, a river connected to such a lagoon is sourced for fisheries, then these wastes enter into the food chain as well. Fishes can easily take up these metals into their body as they feed on plankton, and you probably end up eating that fish. Now, the waste is in your food as well. Yuck.
Isn’t this a good enough reason to turn vegetarian? Turning vegetarian would reduce the demand for such animal meat, these animals wouldn’t be grown. But if you choose to continue eating meat, consider buying products that are certified organic, and prove that they take care of their animals and the environment.
Categories: Environmental Degradation