Factory farms are crappy. Literally.

Aerial Photo of a Factory Farm

Annotated aerial photo of a factory farm by Socially Responsible Agricultural Project via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Factory farms are a menace to clean water. So Ted Genoways persuasively argues in a lengthy article posted on Monday. (It’s such a feat of reporting that one can only assume it’s a preview of his forthcoming book, The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food). As he describes early in the piece,

Large [hog] producers … insist that the enormous, concrete-reinforced waste pits under each confinement—many with a capacity of 300,000 gallons—effectively prevent contaminants from leaching into the soil, and that manure is carefully managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources under laws aimed at accounting for all manure at all times. But mounting evidence suggests that an unprecedented boom in Iowa’s hog industry has created a glut of manure, which is applied as fertilizer to millions of acres of cropland and runs off into rivers and streams, creating a growing public health threat. Meanwhile, the number of DNR staff conducting inspections has been cut by 60 percent since 2007.

Between May and July 2013, as downpours sheeted off drought-hardened fields, scientists at the Des Moines Water Works watched manure contamination spike to staggering levels at intake sites on the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. These two major tributaries of the Mississippi are also the usual sources of drinking water for roughly one out of every six Iowans. But at one point last summer, nitrate in the Raccoon reached 240 percent of the level allowed under the Clean Water Act, and the DMWW warned parents not to let children drink from the tap, reminding them of the risk of blue baby syndrome….

Mounting concern about the safety of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has stoked a public outcry. So, to be honest, I was shocked when Brad Freking, the CEO of New Fashion Pork, agreed to allow me to tour one of its facilities. In the changing room, I zipped into some navy coveralls and slid a pair of clear plastic boots over a second set of footies. Emily Erickson turned the handle to the barn entrance, opening the heavy steel door a crack. The sound of squealing hogs spilled into the room. “If you’ve never been inside,” she warned, “it’s a lot of pig, it’s a lot of metal, it’s a lot of noise.” I assured her I was ready, and we headed inside.

Whether you’re an indiscriminate meat eater, a conscientious omnivore, or long-time vegan, the article is a must-read. Genoways not only describes what “a lot of pig” sounds and smells like, but goes on to trace the recent explosion of factory farms in Iowa, including the role of mega-corporations (Cargill, Hormel, Smithfield, Tyson) expanding into emerging markets like China. Genoways then details the destructive impact of these factory farms—which are helped by industry-backed politicians, weak laws, and underfunded enforcement agencies—on Iowa’s water.

Check out the full piece at either Civil Eats or On Earth.

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