Canada Cover

WHEN WATER KILLS

Andrew Nikiforuk,Andrew Nikiforuk June 12 2000
Canada Cover

WHEN WATER KILLS

Andrew Nikiforuk,Andrew Nikiforuk June 12 2000

WHEN WATER KILLS

Canada Cover

The dangerous consequences of factory farming are being felt all across the country

Andrew Nikiforuk

Long after the dead have been buried in Walkerton, Ont., rural Canadians who rely on groundwater will continue to feel and smell the impact of a largely unreported revolution: the growth of factory farms. This new industry, or what governments call “intensive livestock operations,” has unsettled farm communities from New Brunswick to Alberta. Unlike the family enterprises of old, which proudly cared for 20 pigs or 60 cattle, these new facilities operate on an entirely different and largely unregulated scale.

Lets begin with the industrialization of Alberta’s fabled beef herds. Thirty years ago, thousands of farmers throughout the province regarded the care of 100 cattle as a big deal. Today, 50 beef barons, largely concentrated north of Lethbridge in an area known as Feedlot Alley, fatten and manage 80 per cent of the provinces slaughtered beef. As a result, just one feedlot will have as many as 25,000 cattle in a maze of outdoor corrals on a piece of land the size of a city block. As Cor Van Ray, Alberta’s undisputed feedlot king, puts it, “Everyone likes to think they can get their chicken or beef on a cozy farm somewhere. But unless you get big and run it like a business you are squeezed out. This whole corporate thing is just snowballing.”

Factory farming has also radicalized the country’s multibillion-dollar hog industry in Ontario, Quebec and the West. One of the fastest growing in the world, Canada’s hog sector employs 100,000 people and exports more than a third of its production to 35 countries. In 1976, 18,622 Ontario farmers raised an average of 103 pigs each. By 1996, 6,777

(many of them white-suited swine technicians) managed an average of 418 animals each in crowded high-tech barns, while just two per cent of Ontario’s hog factories accounted for nearly a quarter of the 5.6 million hogs produced in the province. And big just keeps getting bigger. An Asian firm, the Taiwan Sugar Co., for example, proposes to build an 80,000-hog operation outside Lethbridge. Local citizens are concerned about the amount of untreated waste it will create—equivalent to that produced by 240,000 people. They are also concerned that, like most of Alberta’s intensive livestock operations, it will be regulated and taxed like a family farm.

The monstrous size of these profitable operations has raised troubling questions about water quality and threats to public health from coast to coast. Manure from factory farms often contains a variety of heavy metals, lake-choking nutrients and deadly pathogens

such as E. coli 0157. In fact, wherever factory farms have concentrated industrial piles of manure in small spaces, big trouble has followed. No one knows this better than Dr. Paul Hasselback, the medical officer of health for Alberta’s Chinook Health Region, home to Leedlot Alley and the nation’s largest concentration of livestock—and a region plagued by chronic health and water problems. “Walkerton has demonstrated to the public that there is a substantial risk out there,” he notes. “There just isn’t a framework to develop these industries in a sustainable fashion.”

The market forces now erecting animal factories across Canada are simple. They include a federal commitment to support low food prices and new economic realities. For starters, it is far cheaper to export steak and pork than to ship grain or corn. Thanks to abundant feed grains, Western Canada can now produce bacon more profitably than any other region in the world. In addition, the world’s key pork producers, Taiwan and Holland, recently pushed production into the danger zone, causing severe water pollution and animal disease outbreaks. But their environmental disasters have had an effect here: hog barns managed by Europeans or funded by Asian investors are popping up all over the country.

Such factories, however, have generated intense opposition in rural Canada. Living next to one can be unpleasant: in addition to the stench of manure, neighbours routinely complain about increased traffic, flies, dust and noise. Most Canadian provinces now boast some kind of coalition battling beef feedlots or hog barns—and the resistance generally focuses on fears about water pollution. And for good reason. The growth of animal factories— aided by provincial incentives such as subsidies in Quebec and the Prairie provinces—has created industrialscale waste problems. A single 500-sow farm producing 20 piglets per sow a year creates as much effluent as a town of25,000 people without a waste treatment system.

Hog waste, which contains a host of heavy metals because of mineral-rich feeds, simply goes to open-air lagoons before it is sprayed on the land. Beef factories aren’t much better. A 25,000-head feedlot produces in excess of 50,000 tonnes of dung—or more fecal matter than 250,000 Calgarians excrete over a year. It, too, is just spread on land bases often too small to absorb all the nutrients. Alberta’s livestock industry may hold a national manure record: dung heaps equivalent to the waste of 48 million Canadians. Very little of this dung is properly treated, regulated or monitored. In Alberta, to the dismay of public health officers like Hasselback, last month the provincial government unceremoniously shelved proposed legislation to crack down on and monitor intensive livestock operations. In many provinces, government downsizing has also foisted the responsibility for regulating these facilities on those least equipped to do the job: municipal governments.

In Quebec, where, according to government statistics, probably a third of all hog operations don’t comply with provincial environmental standards, a coalition of 18 farm and environmental organizations even took their case to NAFTA’s Commission for Environmental Cooperation. The governments of Mexico and Canada, however, voted against investigating allegations that Ottawa and Quebec weren’t protecting waterways from manure runoff. Ontario is also in bad shape. Dr. Murray McQuigge, the outspoken public health officer who blew the whistle on the Walkerton outbreak, warned last September that “poor nutrient management on farms is leading to the degradation of the quality of groundwater, streams and lakes.” Ontario has no specific legislation governing factory farms.

Les Klapatiuk, who runs a Calgary firm specializing in water treatment, says there isn’t a single government in Canada with adequate legislation to deal with these volumes ol animal waste. “The leakage from lagoons is incredible, and when you spread millions of gallons of waste on a field it just runs into the surface water,” he says. “If a city or an oil company operated this way, they would be shut down.”

All this manure has already taken a costly toll on waterways in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta. A 1998 federal study found half of 27 Alberta streams in key agricultural production areas exceeded water guidelines for nitrogen, phosphorus and disease-carrying bacteria. According to a

Experts fear Canada’s cavalier attitude towards water will prove calamitous

1991 study, about 30 per cent of rural wells in Ontario were contaminated with pathogens. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that agricultural runoff from animal factories and traditional farms is the leading source of water pollution in that country.

David Schindler, one of the world’s leading experts on water and an ecologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, believes Canada is no different. He thinks the nation’s notoriously cavalier attitude towards water quality will prove calamitous. In a scientific paper to be published this fall, he predicts that pollution from agriculture and other sources, as well as habitat destruction, will end all freshwater fishing within 50 years, while the nation’s drinking water supply will be in dire straits within a century. “Whenever you don’t pay attention to factory farms and their waste, you end up paying for it in spades in health services and waste-water treatment,” Schindler says. “Country after country has gone down this path. Why aren’t we learning from other people’s mistakes?”

Is health being compromised? In a study published last year, Health Canada mapped cattle densities and the incidence of Escherichia coli 0157 infections in rural Ontario, only to discover that six rural Ontario counties with the highest number of cattle—and Walkerton is located smack dab in the middle of them—routinely registered the highest rates of E. coli 0157 infection between 1990 and 1995. Pascal Michel, the Health Canada veterinarian and epidemiologist who did the E. coli 0157 study, says he was surprised by the scale of the Walkerton tragedy—but not by its location. “We knew we could expect more cases of infection in these counties than anywhere else in the province,” he said.

Albertas Feedlot Alley, which produces untreated waste from 1.3 million animals that is the sewage equivalent for a population of eight million people, has also been plagued by Walkerton-like troubles. Conclusive proof that health problems there are the result of animal waste does not exist. But area residents routinely ran to the bathroom with the highest rates of intestinal dis-

ease in the province. In one three-year period between 1989 and 1991, E. coli 0157 killed a dozen children and afflicted scores more in southern Alberta’s cattle country. In recent years, the Chinook Health Region has repeatedly raised pointed questions about the bacterial contamination of drinking water, the fouling of irrigation canals, clogged water treatment plants and nitrates in the groundwater.

The public health costs of hog factories are equally daunting. A U.S. survey published this spring found that people living downwind from hog farms in North Carolina—where such factories first originated—experienced more headaches, mnny noses, sore throats, excessive coughing, diarrhea and burning eyes than residents of a community without hog factories. None of this is surprising: according to other U.S. studies, 25 per cent of all workers employed by hog barns suffer from bronchitis due to the corrosive nature of hog waste. A 1997 Iowa study

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found that the methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide spewing from a 4,000hog operation caused respiratory illnesses in people living up two kilometres away.

In the United States, where factory farms have polluted parts of the eastern seaboard and poisoned scores of communities, state and federal governments have gotten tough. Kansas and Nebraska, for example, have banned large animal factories and Iowa has declared a moratorium on future developments. The EPA has also targeted factory farms for top priority inspections. Canada, however, hasn’t followed suit. With the exception of a pending national program for uniform standards for hog operations, and funding on manure research, Ottawa is largely absent from the debate over factory farms. Nor are provinces picking up the slack.

Critics agree there are some obvious reforms. Provincial governments should cap

livestock density in many regions, while many rural Canadians want to see animal factories regulated and taxed for what they are: industries. Canada also needs laws that recognize that E. coli 0157 and other pathogens have forever changed the nature of manure. Many experts also recommend that animal waste should be properly treated before the dung ever leaves the barn.

Most producers support higher standards for the simple reason that disasters like Walkerton aren’t good for business. Last but not least, Schindler, Canada’s top water scientist, would also like to see federal funding for freshwater research restored (it is now, he says, at an alltime low) and comprehensive management plans for the nation’s watersheds. “Walkerton,” Schindler concludes, “should be a wake-up call—for the entire nation.”

Andrew Nikiforuk is a Calgary-based journalist who has written extensively aboutfactory farms.