In early December, residents of Millsboro, Delaware—home to Mountaire Farms’ chicken processing plant—began receiving free bottled water from Mountaire due to contaminated local water wells. The Mountaire plant had sprayed, on nearby farmland, hundreds of gallons of effluent saturated with up to 41 times the legally permitted levels for nitrates and up to 5,500 times the permitted level for fecal coliform.1 Some of that effluent had leached into nearby residents’ wells, exposing drinking water to pathogens and health risks associated with nitrates.2 The most surprising part of this case was not that hazardous waste had been released from a factory farm, nor that it had contaminated local water wells, but that the pollution and subsequent contamination had been identified by a state agency, and that Mountaire was acknowledging and addressing the problem.
This news signaled a theme that would appear many times at the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project’s December 2017 Factory Farm Summit: even as the problems caused by industrial agriculture worsen, public awareness of the faults in the system is growing, materializing in resistance to industrialized agriculture and increasingly loud calls for change.
This year, Farm Forward joined farmers, local officials, concerned citizens, public health professionals, and advocates for the environment and farm animals at the Factory Farm Summit in Ocean City, Maryland. The summit offered a factory farm tour followed by three days of powerful talks, panel conversations, and networking sessions, all designed to empower communities in their fights against factory farms.
We witnessed first hand the impact that the proliferation of factory farms has on local communities. We visited a Somerset County, Maryland resident’s home that now sits parallel to six chicken concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—each holding 50,000 birds—and in an area with 103 chicken CAFOs in a three-mile radius. No one monitors any outputs of these chicken houses, regardless of the industrial fans that blow noxious odors out of each house, and despite the high rate of adults with asthma in Maryland’s top chicken-producing county.3 Air monitoring is a necessary first step toward protecting Marylanders’ health in the face of industrial-scale broiler chicken production. At the summit, Maryland Senator Richard Madaleno and community organizers from Maryland’s Eastern Shore introduced the Community Healthy Air Act, which would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to monitor and report air pollution from these and all other Maryland factory farms.
The summit challenged the idea that factory farms bring jobs and economic benefits to rural communities and the notion that factory farms feed the world. As often as these arguments are held up by agricultural companies, there is little data to suggest that they are true:4,5 Somerset County, for example, has had the highest level of chicken production in Maryland6 for many years; it also had the highest average unemployment rate in the state in 20177 and ranks second in the state for the percentage of the population that is food insecure.8
Daisy Freund, Director of Farm Animal Welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), reminded the audience that those fighting on behalf of farmed animals often have the same vision as those fighting on behalf of sickened community members, misled contract growers, employees of dangerous processing plants, and the environment: we all want a food system that respects the health and dignity of people, animals, and the planet. As Freund pointed out, no one goes to the grocery store intending to buy food from animals that led miserable lives. No one wants the food on their plate to contaminate the drinking water of rural America, pollute waterways, or support a system in which people are forced to choose between unemployment and insecure, even dangerous jobs. Yet we unwittingly contribute to these problems when we buy factory farmed animal products.
The summit connected dedicated and passionate people working to stop the harms of factory farms. We are working in common cause: society can no longer exchange our health, rural economies, the environment, and animal welfare for profits for the few.
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