September 25, 2007
The Fraser Valley, once a bucolic landscape of small family farms, has become a casualty of one of the great global issues of the 21st century: The dirty, dangerous and inhumane business of intensive agriculture — a business driven by our insatiable demand for cheap meat.
Earlier this year, the B.C. Agriculture Council quietly released a study that found “high to very high environmental risk” levels of nitrates in the soil of a number of the Valley’s farms. Previous studies have identified agriculture as the main source of nitrates leaching into the Abbotsford aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 100,000 people.
Specifically, it’s the enormous amount of nitrate-rich livestock manure that’s the problem. Farmers spray masses of it on crops as fertilizer, causing excess nutrients such as nitrates, phosphates and potassium to seep into the soil and groundwater.
High levels of nitrates in drinking water are associated with blue baby syndrome, a condition that reduces babies’ ability to carry sufficient oxygen in the blood. Nitrates also cause excessive algae growth in waterways, suffocating aquatic life.
The manure is from 128,000 cattle, 95,500 pigs, 767,000 turkeys and, most importantly, the 15.4 million chickens in the Valley. The chickens alone produced 736,500 cubic yards of manure in 2000; this is expected to rise to one million cubic yards per year by 2010.
The huge amount of manure is the direct result of the intensification of agriculture over the past 20 years. The Fraser Valley has more farm animals per square kilometre than anywhere else in Canada and the highest concentration of large farms.
The biggest change has been in the industrialization of the poultry industry. While the number of chickens in the Fraser Valley has increased, the number of poultry farms has fallen. During the 1990s the number of chickens per farm increased by 78 per cent. Out with the family farm’s henhouse and in with giant broiler barns for meat chickens and battery cages for egg-laying hens. The factory farm has arrived in a big way.
Agriculture has been identified not only as a cause of water pollution, but also as a contributor to air pollution. Ammonia from livestock manure (chiefly poultry) accounts for three-quarters of ammonia emissions in the Lower Fraser Valley. Ammonia can react with other pollutants to form fine particulates, which can be harmful to respiratory health. Last year, the Fraser Valley Regional District’s director of planning said that within the next five to seven years “agriculture will be more responsible for air pollutants than all the vehicular transportation in the valley.”
Nor should we forget that in 2004 the Valley’s poultry industry was the source of Canada’s biggest avian flu outbreak. The high density of poultry farms and the densely stocked chicken barns have created a perfect place for potentially dangerous viruses to emerge and mutate.
If all this were not bad enough, the Valley’s farms are also contributing to global warming. A sobering study by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization found that livestock production causes an estimated 18 per cent of human-induced greenhouse-gas emissions globally — more than all forms of transportation combined.
Not surprisingly, intensive farming has also created an animal welfare nightmare for the chickens, pigs and cattle packed into cages, crates and feedlots to produce cheap meat, eggs and dairy products. The Fraser Valley is just one small example of an inhumane agricultural model that has been exported to developing countries worldwide. Known in the industry as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), they now contain billions of animals that are deprived of the most basic natural behaviours, even just flapping a wing or moving more than a few inches in one direction.
Structural reforms, such as dispersing the existing CAFOs in the Fraser Valley and banning new operations might help reduce local pollution, but the real answer is to reduce our meat consumption. Large-scale livestock production is inflicting industrialized cruelty on countless animals, polluting our air and water and contributing in a major way to potentially catastrophic climate change.
That’s why the Vancouver Humane Society is calling on Canada’s key environmental groups to make livestock production a priority issue. It’s time environmentalists and all of us recognized a fact: Eating less meat will not only save animals from factory farm cruelty — it will help save the planet.
For background information on this issue, click here