Big Chicken = Big Pollution

Chickens raised for slaughter, CAFO.  Farm Sanctuary/Flickr.

Chickens raised for slaughter, CAFO. Farm Sanctuary/Flickr.

We’ve all heard the advice:  chose chicken instead of red meat, it’s a “lean protein” and “better” for the environment. Apparently, Americans listened. In fact, according to the American Meat Institute, chicken has become the No. 1 source of meat consumed by Americans, surpassing beef and pork by a significant margin.1 The increase in consumption of chicken, however, has not been without serious consequences. As detailed in the recent report by The Pew Environmental Group, Big Chicken, Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America, (Pew Report), over the last 50 years there has been tremendous concentration of businesses controlling chicken production, tremendous waste and disposal problems, and serious public health concerns associated with such operations.

The Pew Report documents that in just over 50 years, the number of chickens produced annually in the United States has increased by more than 1,400 percent while the number of farms producing those birds has dropped by 98 percent.2 To put that in to perspective, in 1950, more than 1.6 million farms spread across the country were growing chickens for American consumers. By 2007, 98 percent of those chicken farms were gone, despite the fact that Americans were consuming ever more chicken — more than 85 pounds per person per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).3  Over that same period, broiler chicken sales, i.e., chicken raised for its meat, jumped by 8 billion birds, or more than 1,400 percent.4

The Pollution Problem Associated With CAFOs

So, what happened? As Americans’ love affair with the white meat grew, the poultry industry streamlined its production operations, concentrated the operation control in the hands of a few meat processing companies (a.k.a. integrators),5 which led to the creation of large scale operations for growing chickens in small confined spaces (a.k.a. concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs), all of which usually occupy a limited geographical area.  In fact, the typical broiler chicken, comes from a facility that annually produces more than 600,000 birds.6 Those who watched the documentary Food Inc. will remember the film’s discussion of problems associated with the concentration of the meat industry and the pressure placed on farmers by corporations like Monsanto, Perdue and Tyson. Carole Morison’s story stands out in particular as she defied Perdue’s wishes by speaking to the filmmakers and revealed “what antibiotics, high-tech breeding and overcrowding are doing to the nation’s chickens.”

The concentration of large scale operations in a limited area has led to serious and damaging environmental problems as the process of dealing with the tremendous animals waste that is produced has not been adequately addressed.

Typically, the poultry operations deal with waste by spreading it on open fields or cropland.7  However, many of them have little cropland associated with their facilities. As a result, an increasing number of farms and counties have more manure than can be used by local crops and excess nutrients from poultry manure are washed off the land and into local streams, rivers and other bodies of water creating pollution.8 In fact, a 2009 USDA report noted that one-third of modern broiler operations have no associated cropland.9

All livestock manure contains nitrogen and phosphorus, but poultry manure often has a higher nutrient content than other types of manure, and those nutrients may not be present in the proportions needed by crops. Broiler litter frequently contains phosphorus and nitrogen in similar ratios, but many crops require far less phosphorus than nitrogen. When farmers follow long-standing practices and apply broiler litter based on a crop’s nitrogen needs, they overapply phosphorus.10

The Ineffective Legal Framework

Many of the nation’s waterways have become polluted as a result of the poultry industry but the legal framework in place to protect our nation’s resources is minimal at best.11 For example, the Clean Water Act’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program, which requires permitting or licensing of discrete or “point sources” of pollution,12 is inapplicable to poultry production because, although the law designates CAFOs as point sources, it also specifically exempts “agricultural stormwater” from the permitting requirements.13

In essence, then, large livestock operations have been given a unique and arguably ineffective dual regulatory status: regulated as point sources for waste in broiler houses and storage areas, but treated differently when that same waste runs off the cropland where it is applied.14

While intergrators control much of the poultry operations and are well capitalized, the contracts they enter into with the actual growers often put the onus of waste management onto the grower, who often lack the resources needed to address the manure run-off.15 This arrangement makes it that much easier to disavow any responsibility for the pollution. The manure from poultry operations, which has contributed to the damaging pollution at the Chesapeake Bay, for example, has been an on-going battle for years.16

That’s Not All

That’s just water pollution. Additional problems brought about by industrial-scale chicken operations include: overuse of antibiotics, pollution caused by egg production, air quality problems, the relationship between large corporations and contract farmers, as well as outright animal abuse that is specifically exempt from many state laws. The recommendations of the Pew Report, which call for balance between waste generated by CAFOs and the amount of cropland available for its disposal, industrial animal agriculture sharing of the responsibility for nutrient pollution reduction, assuming the financial and legal obligations of proper waste management, federal and state permitting program for or management of manure transported off CAFO sites and requiring all medium-to-large sized operations to obtain clean water permits, deal directly with the problems of waste management and pollution and the adjustment of the legal framework to address them. Undoubtedly, these are all good measures.

Fundamentally, however, it is also a question of supply and demand and we cannot escape from the unpalatable truth that Americans consume too much meat. The solution to the Chesapeake Bay pollution or that of the Illinois River or any other body water that happens to be downstream from a poultry CAFO, as well as the other problems mentioned above, also involves each and everyone of us taking a serious and hard look at our eating habits and finding alternatives to fill the dinner plate.

Additional sources:

Chickens Used For Food

United Poultry Concerns

Another Form of Abuse: Egg Hatcheries

According to the American Meat Institute,
chicken has become the No. 1 source of meat
consumed by Americans, surpassing beef and
pork by a significant margin
  1. Big Chicken, Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America, The Pew Environmental Report, July 2011, p 1,, last accessed on September 10, 2011
  2. Id. at 1
  3. Id. at 3
  4. Id.
  5. Typically, integrators today control the breeding of their own chickens, not only to achieve the desired level of quality and characteristics that allow rapid weight gain with minimal feed, but also to produce birds of a uniform size that can be slaughtered, packaged and processed by machine rather than individually cut and prepared. The integrator chooses when to deliver chicks to a contract grower and when to collect grown birds for delivery to a processing facility. Id. at 5
  6. Id. 1
  7. Id. at 2
  8. Id.
  9. Id. at 7
  10. Id. at 11
  11. Id. at 17
  12. Those permits, which may include specific limits on the concentration of pollutants associated with a facility, frequently compel the use of certain cleanup or control technologies and foster application of what amounts to good housekeeping practices to prevent violations of permit terms. Id. at 17
  13. Id.
  14. Id. at 18
  15. Id. at 12
  16. Other waterways have also been impacted by the over application of manure and the build-up of pollutants as a result of CAFOs for broiler chickens. For example, in Georgia, University of Georgia researchers found in 2002 that 13 counties in the state had excess phosphorus in the soil. Of those, 10 were areas where poultry was concentrated. Id. at 14.

    Another area where broiler growth and concentration have been accompanied by water pollution problems lies in northwestern Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, where the Eucha and Spavinaw watersheds became endangered because poultry production led to “out of control nutrient” problem in the waterways. And in 2005, the Oklahoma attorney general sued 14 Arkansas poultry companies seeking compensation for damage to the Illinois River. Id.