Report Calls for Better Animal Waste Treatment

Hog farm waste lagoonOne step beyond her front door, Jayne Clampitt is greeted with the toxic fumes flowing from the roughly 1 million gallons of hog manure stored at her neighbor's farm. She no longer dries her family's laundry outside, her children avoid the nearby polluted stream, and she worries that their shallow drinking well will also be contaminated with toxins.

"We thought there was this unspoken connection between farmers, respect and stewardship. But we don't see that anymore," said Clampitt, whose family raises livestock in northwest Iowa. "I should not be forced to move out of my home."

Clampitt was flown to Washington, D.C., this week to speak at the release of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production's two-and-a-half year study on U.S. livestock production. The report calls for an overhaul of farm-animal regulations to better treat the mounting waste. The commission also recommends the end to many unsustainable farming practices that are affecting rural residents like Clampitt and having an impact on food security, public health, animal welfare, and environmental resources worldwide.

Most animal waste produced at factory farms is spread on the ground untreated, the report said. In addition to threatening drinking water sources, nutrients within animal waste often seep into groundwater or waterways, where they contribute to reduced oxygen levels in aquatic ecosystems. "There's a huge variation in regulations across the nation, lack of regulation, or a lack of oversight," said commission chair and former Kansas governor John Carlin. "This waste is not, with rare exception, being treated."

The report said that one of the most serious unintended consequences of factory farms is their growing threat to public health. Farm workers and neighbors of facilities that generate large amounts of animal waste suffer high levels of respiratory ailments, including asthma, the report notes.

Philip Lobo, communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a meat industry trade group, disagreed with the report's sweeping assessment of the waste situation, saying only a small minority of ranchers do not properly store animal waste. "We do not condone any of those bad actors, it's absolutely irresponsible. It's the wrong thing to do for themselves and their neighbors," he said. 

During the past several decades, the United States has increased meat production while consolidating livestock production into fewer, larger farms. The result has been rapid growth in poorly treated animal waste lagoons, the spread of resistance among infectious bacteria due to the use of antimicrobials for livestock disease prevention, animal welfare procedures that severely restrict natural animal behaviors, and a rural population incapable of competing with wealthy food industry corporations, the report said.

As world meat consumption continues to grow, similar farm practices are likely to spread throughout the developing world as well. "There are enormous negative consequences of us doing nothing," said Fedele Bauccio, a member of the commission and the chief executive officer of Bon Appétit Management Company, a food and restaurant provider. 

The commission, which comprises 15 scientists, politicians, and industry members, made five additional recommendations: phase out animal confinement systems, ban new antibiotics for animals without a diagnosed illness, implement a national farm-animal disease monitoring program, enforce federal laws against corporate consolidation, and increase research funding. The report was jointly funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute who covers everything environmental for Eye on Earth. He can be reached at