Poultry and Pollution

Chicken factoryWhen it comes to the environment, the public’s attention has been understandably focused on global warming. However, the water pollution problem hasn’t gone away. While many people are aware of the water pollution caused by raising cattle, few are aware that raising chicken is just as bad if not worse. Sure, a cow produces more manure than a chicken does, but there are far more chickens in this country. In fact, we now raise over 9 billion chickens every year compared to only 95 million cows.

In addition to the water pollution that results from agricultural runoff from fertilizer while raising feed crops for all those chickens, the waste products from raising chickens cause an enormous amount of pollution. In fact, chicken manure is especially degrading to waterways because it contains 2 to 4 times more pollutants (particularly nitrogen and phosphorous) than the manure of other types of livestock and can also have disastrous effects on water and soil quality.

“Big Chicken” describes the emergence of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms, and the environmental impact of this industrial scale production. These factory farms produce a bountiful supply of cheap chicken, but also an excess of chicken manure concentrated in a relatively small space. Growers typically dispose of litter by spreading it on open fields or cropland, but when it’s over-applied due to lack of room, or it’s poorly managed, the rain washes it into streams and rivers, causing significant water quality problems, massive fish kills, and destruction of other aquatic life.

While chicken farmers and chicken companies debate who should be responsible for the waste, the industry has successfully resisted pollution control regulations. A new study by researchers at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science shows that poultry slaughterhouses also produce large amounts of water pollution and that coastal waters are also affected. Ocean dead zones are often the result. When the waters become polluted fish die. This is not only very harsh on the fish, but worsens the water pollution even more and disrupts the food chain.

There’s damage to human health as well. These chemicals leach into our drinking water. In high concentrations, nitrates in drinking water can hinder a body’s ability to carry enough oxygen to cells, causing potentially severe health problems for infants and people with compromised immune systems.

Tyson Foods, one of the largest producers of meat in the world, is responsible for dumping more toxic pollution by volume into U.S. waters than companies like Exxon and Dow Chemical, according to an analysis from environmental advocacy group Environment America. This coincides with a decision by Tyson shareholders not to institute a new water policy that would have mandated the company to keep better track of its water pollution both inside and outside of its direct facilities.

Authorities have started to push back. Tyson’s pollution has been the subject of several legal challenges over the years, with the company paying millions in legal settlements and fines since 2001.

Again and again, and in so many ways, we see that raising livestock is simply not environmentally sustainable. The best option for the environment turns out to be the best for you and, of course, for the chickens themselves. Fortunately, many delicious chicken substitutes are available in your local grocery. Why not give them a try? Indeed, saving the environment never tasted so good.