In just 50 years, the chicken industry has transformed itself in fantastic fashion: Skyrocketing 1,400 percent from 580 million birds to the nearly nine billion today, while independent farmers have been virtually wiped out—the more than 1.6 million in the 1950s have been replaced by fewer than 30,000 farms today, most of which are large concentrated factory farms, according to a new report by the Pew Environmental Group titled “Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America.”
The impact of what is now the most popular meat in America is not only felt by the farmers who have had to adjust their livelihood over the last half century, but there are significant issues affecting air, soil and especially water quality, “because management programs for chicken waste have not kept pace with output,” says Karen Steuer, who directs Pew’s efforts to reform industrial animal agriculture.
The report, in lengthy detail, reviews the issues facing the now commonplace CAFOs (concentrated animal feed operation), mainly the massive amounts of broiler chicken manure. Often “disposed” of on our nation’s dwindling open fields or fragile cropland, too much or improper application can create serious health threats. Rain can wash the excrement into waterways, polluting drinking water and valuable ecosystems like the Chesapeake Bay. And, crops can be contaminated with harmful antibiotic resistant bacteria, due to the high-level doses of antibiotics routinely given to the animals to reduce the risk of infections which are rampant in the close and unsanitary conditions they endure.
Not all doom and gloom, the report offers sound recommendations to decrease the stress America’s massive chicken industry has on the environment, such as limiting the animal production density relative to the capacity of regional crops capable of absorbing the impact; a shared financial and legal responsibility between growers and integrators for waste management; regulated waste removal management; and Clean Water Act permit requirements for all medium and large CAFOs to help ensure no toxic run-off.
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