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EPA to Regulate Heavy Pollution From Livestock Factory Farms

by Danielle Knight

Huge factory farms pollute the air and water and force small farmers out of business
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Pollution from large livestock farms is becoming so widespread that U.S. agricultural officials are changing government policy to favor smaller farms, while imposing strict regulations on the bigger "factory" farms.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has decided to take an industrial approach to regulating these factory farms by setting the tightest standards ever faced by agriculture in this country. The Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, has begun to praise the ecological and social benefits of small farms and is studying how to better promote their survival.

This is break with the current worldwide trend that favors large farms or agribusiness, say development experts.

International lending and aid institutions as well as governments have promoted large farms as more efficient, more technologically advanced, and better managed.

Agribusiness development also has been a cornerstone of efforts to bring Third World countries into the international markets. But "export-oriented economies which are designed around large plantations and factory farms...ultimately end up displacing small subsidence farmers," said Anuradha Mittal, senior policy analyst with the California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy.

Now, U.S. officials, are starting to rethink the value of large factory farms. Pushed by environmentalists and small farmers, officials say that these huge factory farms, such as Premium Standard Farms, the country's third-largest pork producer which houses 550,000 hogs, pollute the air and water and have also forced hundreds of thousands of small farmers out of business.

Produce as much raw sewage as some middle-sized cities but without the same waste treatment requirement
Agribusinesses like Missouri-based Premium, produce not only large amounts of meat but also huge quantities of manure -- as much raw sewage as some middle-sized cities but without the same waste treatment requirement.

Hog waste spills by Premium - which has brought nearly 2,000 jobs to the area - have endangered surface waters and aquifers, according to Missouri's state attorney general. Emissions of methane and hydrogen sulfide from the waste, made without any permits for emitting air pollution, were also a serious concern, said the attorney.

Similar complaints about other large operators around the nation spurred EPA's new strategy.

A report issued by Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, said Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota, which account for about a third of the nation's hog production recorded 40 manure spills in 1996 which killed several hundred thousand fish.

Factory farm run-off also contains high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen which contaminate drinking water and trigger algae blooms which are deadly to fish, animals and aquatic vegetation, say environmentalists.

Manure from chicken farms is suspected as a factor in recent blooms of the toxic algae outbreaks in the Chesapeake Bay off of the state of Maryland which has killed hundreds of thousands of fish, and the lack of oxygen in the gulf of Mexico off Louisiana state has also been linked to fertilizer washed off agricultural land, say environmentalists with the Washington-based Sierra Club.

"Runoff from animal feeding operations in particular has been associated with threats to human health and the environment," added Carol M. Browner, the head EPA administrator.

The EPA's goal is to work with the states to impose pollution- discharge permits on all large farms by 2005. The agency also said it would propose regulations dictating the kind of pollution control measures the big farms must adopt - ranging from new equipment to capture fumes, to changing the composition of animal feed.

Federal farm programs that have historically benefitted agribusiness -- which have strong lobbying groups
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating how small farmers have been displaced by factory farms and how to reverse this trend. A special commission appointed last year by the Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, recently published a report on the disappearance of small farms, called "A Time to Act."

"Like most major industries, the ownership and control over agricultural assets is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and small farmers have little or no control over setting the price for their products," says the report.

The increase in factory farms -- which can produce livestock at lower prices, explains Glenda Yoder, a spokeswomen for Farm Aid, a national small farm advocacy organization -- has led to a dramatic decrease in the price farmers receive for their livestock. This price decrease has forced hundred of thousands of independent hog farmers, for example, out of business, she says.

Compared to 1979, the United States currently has 300,000 fewer farmers. Four firms now control over 80 percent of the beef market, for example, according to "A Time to Act."

The report blames the disappearance of small farms on federal farm programs that have historically benefitted agribusiness -- which have strong lobbying groups in Washington. Disproving the theory that large farms are more efficient than small farms, the report urged law makers to reverse the current policy bias against small farmers.

Tax policies, supported by conservative law makers, currently give large farmers greater incentives for capital purchases to expand their operations, says the report. And large farms that depend on hired farmworkers also receive exemptions from Federal labor laws allowing they the advantage of low-wage costs, the report continues.

This bias against small farms has huge social costs, says the report. As small farms are consolidated into larger farms, the economic basis of rural communities declines and rural towns are "lost."

Favoring large farms also has tremendous environmental costs. Small farms do not concentrate large numbers of animals in limited areas and therefore do not produce the same levels of pollution as megafarms.

"It's largely a matter of scale," says Chirag Mehta, a program coordinator the Illinois Stewardship Alliance which is part of the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, a national network of small farm advocacy organizations. "With smaller farms there is the right balance or proportion between the amount of land and the amount of waste produced."

Small farmer organizations such as the Alliance have been pointing out the social and ecological benefits of small farms for decades in order to get law makers to reverse the policy biases against them, Mehta told IPS.

"Small family farms have kept our water pure, our environment clean, for over a hundred years," Bob Weber, a small farmer from South Dakota told the Department of Agriculture. "Factory livestock farming and corporate farming could end all of that."

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Albion Monitor April 22, 1998 (

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