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How Factory Farms Destroy Drinking Water Worldwide

Story at-a-glance -

  • Agriculture uses the majority, 70 percent, of the world’s fresh water supply
  • Large-scale factory farms not only deplete aquifers of valuable drinking water, they also pollute what little water remains
  • Modern agriculture is also responsible for the destruction of topsoil. If current rates of degradation continue, all of the topsoil around the world will be gone in 60 years

By Dr. Mercola

Two of the primary polluters of our world and destroyers of our environment are also the primary sources of our food: large-scale, factory-style crop farms (both genetically engineered (GE) and conventionally-grown food crops), and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

GE crop fields and CAFOs tend to go hand in hand—especially in the US—and they not only deplete aquifers of valuable drinking water, they also pollute what little fresh drinking water remains.

Most people don't realize that agriculture uses 70 percent of the world's fresh water. This is a challenge because over one billion of the seven billion people on Earth don't even have access to safe, clean drinking water.

Add to that the soil destruction and depletion that's occurring courtesy of modern agricultural practices and it's quite clear that our primary food suppliers also pose a very serious threat to the future of our food and water supplies...

A Business Insider1 article published in August last year shows aerial photos of factory farms across the US that reveal, in disgusting detail, how the American countryside is being destroyed by their presence.

At present, the vast majority of the major food crops grown in the US are genetically engineered, and 99 percent of food animals in the US are raised in these large-scale feedlots. Yet many Americans still do not realize exactly how their food is raised or grown, and all the "hidden" costs associated with factory-style farming.

Des Moines, Iowa Sues Over Fertilizer Runoff

According to the Environmental Protection Agency2 (EPA), US states with high concentrations of CAFOs report 20-30 serious water quality problems annually. In Iowa, factory farms are now accused of polluting two rivers that supply drinking water to the city of Des Moines.

High levels of nitrates have been detected in the water, which is both difficult and costly to remove. Des Moines' water utility spent $900,000 on nitrate filtering in 2013, and is now threatening to sue three neighboring counties (Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun Counties) over the fertilizer runoff tainting these rivers.

According to Bill Stowe, general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, the public water supply is "directly risked by high nitrate concentrations." As reported by NPR:3

"Stowe says the source of these nitrates is pretty clear. Farmers spread nitrogen fertilizer on their corn fields, it turns into nitrate and then it commonly runs into streams through networks of underground tile pipes that drain the soil.

Those drainage systems are managed, in some cases, by county governments, and Des Moines Water Works is now proceeding on the theory that those governments can be held legally responsible for the pollution that their pipes carry.

When they build these artificial drainage districts that take water, polluted water, quickly into the Raccoon River, they have a responsibility to us and others as downstream users... We need to get down to specific steps that they need to take. If they aren't willing, we'll see them in federal court."

Unfortunately, the toxic waste created by factory farms cannot be completely contained or eliminated, no matter what you do. It has to go somewhere, even if it doesn't go directly into a valuable water source.

The long-term solution is to alter our farming practices to root out toxic chemicals and soil additives, and to grow crops in such a way that the farm is contributing to the overall health and balance of the environment rather than polluting it and creating a dysfunctional ecosystem.

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Victory Against Polluting CAFOs in Oregon

In related news, the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment (CARE) and Center for Food Safety (CFS) recently won a summary judgment4 against four CAFO dairies in Lower Yakima Valley, accused of violating critical environmental protection laws.

According to the lawsuit, the massive above-ground manure lagoons at these dairies leak toxic waste such as nitrates and other pollutants into soils and public water supplies, thereby posing a major threat to public health and the environment.  

In 2012, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a report5 showing that 20 percent of the 331 wells tested in the Lower Yakima Valley had nitrate levels above federal drinking water standards, and more than 24,000 residents rely on water from these private wells.

The health hazards of nitrates include blue baby syndrome, cancer, autoimmune diseases, reproductive problems, and more. According to the press release:6

"The groups have won summary judgment, confirming that industrial dairies' manure indisputably threatens public health. The decision affirms CARE and CFS's argument that the manure management practices of these industrial dairies may contribute to drinking water contamination, are insufficient to protect public health and the environment, and that these industrial dairies should be held responsible.

 ...Today's landmark decision connects these industrial dairies to contamination of the drinking water of thousands of Lower Yakima Valley residents.

 'It is long past due that these dairy factories be held accountable for their toxic waste and compromising of human health,' said George Kimbrell, senior attorney for Center for Food Safety. These dairies' practices harm drinking water and the environment, and we are gratified that the Court agrees that such pollution is unlawful."

Next, the groups will proceed to trial, where the court will be provided with evidence to establish what needs to be done to clean up this toxic mess. Jessica Culpepper, Food Safety and Health attorney at Public Justice noted that:

"This precedent-setting victory is a clear indication that mega-dairies like Cow Palace may not continue to operate in a way that dumps their mess on the people and the environment.

By creating far more manure than the dairy could possibly manage and allowing its facility to operate under filthy conditions, it has endangered not only the environment and a community's drinking water supply, but the health and safety of the animals, the farmworkers, and dairy consumers as well."

Indiana Senator Introduces Bill to Thwart Moratoriums on New CAFO's

Victories such as the one just mentioned are becoming increasingly important in light of the power of the agricultural lobby, which is constantly fighting to keep regulations on these mega operations as loose and carefree as possible. In response to rising numbers of moratoriums against new CAFO's in Indiana, state Senator Jean Leising introduced Senate Bill 249, which would prevent a county, municipality or township "from adopting an ordinance, resolution, rule, policy, or other requirement" that prohibits the building of any livestock structure, provided the operation is in accordance with zoning and state laws.

According to environmentalist attorney Kim Ferraro, who is the water and agriculture policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council:7 "It's one thing to want to be a state that promotes agriculture. It's a whole other thing to completely strip the rights of local governments and citizens to protect themselves from harm."

Indiana already has laws on the books that encourage the building of CAFOs and restrict local governments' ability to pass ordinances to prevent new factory farms from being built. Laws have also been passed that make it more difficult for residents to win a nuisance lawsuit against CAFOs for noxious odors, for example. Former Jay County commissioner Milo Miller Jr has described Leising's bill as a "bunch of crap," adding:  

"They say they want the counties to have local control, but it's 'Do it our way'. What kind of local control is that? Who knows what's best in the county? The state legislature or the county officials?"

Fresh Water Supplies at Risk Across the Globe

Water pollution is a serious problem around the world, primarily as a result of toxic agriculture practices. A story in The Blade8 discusses a new study9 that suggests many of the world's lakes are at risk due to farm fertilizer runoff, which feeds harmful blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). Once this algae is established, it's more difficult to get rid of it than previously thought. "Nitrogen and phosphorus in the algae itself gets recycled and combines with fresh runoff to form more algae, resulting in a near-perpetual cycle of goopy green stuff that is difficult to break in certain bodies of water," the article explains.

The answer, according to the authors of this study, is better land-use management that addresses fertilizer runoff. A dramatic reduction in fertilizer use is also recommended. Lead author and Dartmouth College biology professor Kathryn Cottingham believes that "aggressive reductions in runoff could yield immediate benefits."

At Current Rate, There's Only Two Generations of Topsoil Left...

A related problem is topsoil destruction and erosion, which is exacerbated by tilling, monocropping, and not using cover crops. According to Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if the current rates of degradation continue, all of the topsoil around the world will be gone in 60 years. If that's not a sobering thought, I don't know what is. That means we have less than two generations' worth left of "doing business as usual." After that, it'll be game over because without topsoil you cannot grow food, no matter how many chemicals you throw on top of it.

"Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, the FAO reported, due to growing populations and soil degradation," Scientific American10 writes.

Taking Control of Your Health Is Part of the Solution

There's absolutely nothing sustainable about our current farming model. Instead of producing ecological balance and food for the masses, the result is global hunger, pollution, and water scarcity... Fortunately, there are answers; it's just a matter of implementing them on a wider scale. Solutions include carbon sequestration techniques, regenerative land management practices, and holistic herd management. We must shift our focus to emphasize the biological system as a whole. Rebuilding functional ecosystems from the ground up will restore them to their fullest potential, and this needs to be our primary focus.

While the principles of regenerative farming are really ancient knowledge, it's not widely discussed or implemented. There's only a small segment of the population that even understands this natural system, and the potential it has for radically transforming the way we feed the masses AND protect the environment at the same time. This segment is slowly growing, however. And, while you may not be able to do anything about how large-scale commercial farms are being run at the moment, you can make a difference for yourself, for your family, and your community that might have residual effects.

Buying organic, thereby avoiding any and all GE foods is, I believe, a crucial step. This includes buying grass-fed or pastured animal products, such as beef, chicken, milk, and eggs. Besides that, you can also grow your own organic vegetables. If you take advantage of the farm-fresh sustainability that's becoming more prevalent as people take control of what they're consuming, you'll realize many benefits. First, you'll know where the foods you and your family eat come from, ensure optimal nutrition, and protect the health of future generations. The following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods in your local area that has been raised in a humane, sustainable manner:

  • Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  • Eat Wild: With more than 1,400 pasture-based farms, Eatwild's Directory of Farms is one of the most comprehensive sources for grass-fed meat and dairy products in the United States and Canada.
  • Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
  • Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
  • FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.