How Factory Farms Pump, Poison and Pollute the Earth

factory farms pollute earth

Story at-a-glance -

  • Up to 40 percent of drinking water worldwide comes from underground waterways that make up largely uncharted aquifer systems, some containing water that’s tens of thousands of years old
  • When NASA published a study of global underground water reserves, they found 37 major aquifer systems — 21 of which were at risk of being depleted
  • Industrial agriculture uses about 70 percent of the water withdrawn from underground aquifers
  • Damages from toxic dicamba drift are expanding to affect not only farmers but also homeowners, resort owners, state parks and organic specialty farms, leaving victims with little recourse
  • The world’s five largest meat and dairy corporations alone create more greenhouse gas emissions than Exxon, Shell or BP each year

By Dr. Mercola

Up to 40 percent of drinking water worldwide comes from underground waterways that make up largely uncharted aquifer systems, some containing water that's tens of thousands of years old. When NASA published a study of global underground water reserves, they found 37 major aquifer systems — 21 of which were at risk of being depleted.1 The problem is especially pronounced in the U.S. southwest (among other regions in Asia and the Middle East), where it's not unusual for family wells to run dry.

Unless they can pay upward of $15,000 to $30,000 to have their wells deepened by hundreds of feet, they're left with faucets that often sputter out sand instead of fresh water. Where is all the water going? It's not the family's long showers or drinking habits that are too blame. Instead, industrial agriculture, drawn to states like Arizona because of its year-round growing season and lack of strict regulations, is using up most of it. According to The New York Times:2

"Local farmers had watched over the last decade and a half as waves of industrial farms arrived, tilling so much land that dust storms began darkening the sky. These enormous corporations were descending on the valley for the same reason homesteaders had a century ago: the year-round growing season and the lax regulation.

Compared with those for rivers and lakes, few laws govern the extraction of groundwater today. Aquifers across the globe are beginning to quietly dry up under the compounded strain of increased food production and a two-decade stretch that now includes the 10 warmest years in recorded history, sending farmers plumbing deeper for deposits of water … [A]griculture uses the bulk of [groundwater] … ; about 70 percent of water withdrawn from aquifers is consumed by this one industry."

Industrial Agriculture Engaging in 'Water Mining'

The term "water mining" has been coined to describe the industry practice of withdrawing water from aquifers at rates that exceed its replenishment. Even industrial farms in the Middle East, having pumped 20,000-year-old aquifers dry in a span of just 40 years, have tapped into Arizona water supplies, buying up 10,000 acres of land in order to grow alfalfa to feed Saudi Arabian cattle, The New York Times reported.3

Meanwhile, in Arizona's Sulphur Springs Valley, the amount of irrigated acres has grown from 40,000 to 100,000 in the last six decades. Among them are nut trees, including almonds and pecans, some of the most water-intensive crops there are. "To ensure a consistent supply of water from an aquifer already plummeting deeper every year, farmers often drill a well every 160 acres, each to a depth of at least 1,000 or 1,500 feet," according to The New York Times.

"One farming conglomerate, expanding from Minnesota, bought or drilled 293 wells, some pumping more than 2,000 gallons a minute. Suddenly, the very qualities of the valley that had nurtured generations of family agriculture — its cheap ground, its lack of groundwater regulation — seemed to threaten its existence."4 The largest user of water in the Valley, though, is a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) raising 16,000 cows on 20,000 acres.

Plans to begin regulating groundwater usage, including proposed fees for usage, have been met with resistance from farmers, sometimes splitting up lifelong friends and leading to physical violence over those resisting the increased regulation. In 2018, Arizona's governor created a water conservation committee to tackle the issue of groundwater security and reform, but in a step backward two additional groundwater bills were proposed that would lift regulations to allow for more than 30,000 homes to be developed.5

Industrial agriculture's strain on water supplies is one that stretches across the U.S., affecting Midwestern farmers as well. According to one study, nearly 70 percent of the water in the High Plains Aquifer System, which stretches across eight states, could be depleted in the next 50 years.6 According to the study, by 1960 farmers had already used up 3 percent of the aquifer's water and by 2010 that rose to 30 percent.

By 2060, it's estimated that another 39 percent of the water will be gone, and this is even taking anticipated irrigation technology improvements into account. While it's thought that farmers might be able to pump less water in the coming decades due to newer irrigation technology, corn crops and cattle CAFOs are expected to increase, which will likely negate any of the potential water savings.

Industrial Agriculture Poisoning the Planet

While draining aquifers and putting rural homeowners at risk of running out of water, industrial farms are also poisoning neighboring croplands due to dicamba drift. The toxic weedkiller, which is used along with genetically engineered (GE) dicamba-tolerant crops, damaged 3.6 million acres of crops in 2017,7 and the damage has continued in 2018, including 25,000 acres of soybean damage in one area of Missouri alone.

Now, however, dicamba drift is expanding to affect not only farmers but also homeowners, resort owners, state parks and organic specialty farms. Interviews conducted by DTN and agricultural news outlet The Progressive Farmer revealed dozens of non-soybean dicamba damages, leaving victims with little recourse.

"At the end of the day, most of the property owners interviewed face serious financial losses that they will never recover. Some wonder if they will ever be able to grow vegetables or trees in their patch of countryside again if dicamba-tolerant soybean acres and their accompanying dicamba use continues to swell."8 Meanwhile, state regulators are facing a backlog of related complaints, leading to delays and many investigations that have yet to be completed. Further, no one is willing to accept the blame for the toxic chemical's effects, including its makers.

"Even state investigations that find a pesticide applicator at fault can only fine the applicator — not compensate the victim," The Progressive Farmer explained. "Laboratories are still learning how to test for dicamba residue effectively, and at what levels. Unless an applicator was flagrantly off label, insurance companies maintain that they are not responsible when dicamba volatilizes and moves off-target. The companies who manufacture the new dicamba herbicides insist that volatility is rare and dicamba injury unusual."9

Dicamba maker Monsanto (which Bayer recently acquired), meanwhile, has continued to downplay the damage reports, sometimes blaming them on farmers' using the chemicals at wind speeds higher than outlined on the label, changes in wind speed or direction or on other factors entirely.

They have no plans to scale back usage of the environmentally devastating chemical, instead boasting that they intend to sell even more GE Xtend crops (and the XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology dicamba variety to go along with them) in 2019: "We went from 25 million acres in 2017 to a doubling of 50 million acres this year [2018] and expect that to continue to rise for 2019."10

CAFO Emissions Are Polluting the Globe

CAFO meat and dairy operations are among the world's top polluters, outpacing even multinational oil and gas corporations like Exxon, Shell and BP in greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to a report by international nonprofit GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).11 The world's five largest meat and dairy corporations alone create more greenhouse gas emissions than Exxon, Shell or BP each year.

What's more, the report found that most of the top 35 meat and dairy giants do not report their emissions and, if they do, may underreport them. In fact, only four of the companies provided credible emissions estimates. And while a handful of the companies do claim to be taking steps to curb the disastrous pollution, they're planning expansion efforts at the same time, largely contradicting any supposed progress. GRAIN reported:12

"Fourteen of the 35 companies have announced some form of emission reduction targets. Of these, only six have targets that include supply chain emissions, yet these emissions can account for up to 90 percent of total emissions. The six companies that do pledge cuts in supply chain emissions are simultaneously pushing for growth in production and exports, driving their overall emissions up regardless of their intention to reduce emissions per kilo of milk or meat produced."

Beyond greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, CAFOs are contributing to a number of other devastating environmental repercussions, including the following. A meta-analysis of 350 studies conducted by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) recommended a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems in order to solve these problems:13

  • Widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems
  • Biodiversity losses
  • Persistent hunger and micronutrient deficiencies
  • A rapid rise in obesity and diet-related diseases
  • Livelihood stresses for farmers

The Truth About Factory Farms

In the infographic below, you can learn more about why CAFOs, i.e., factory farms, create problems with pollution, animal welfare and human health.

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Factory Farms Should Be Extinct

One of the lesser talked about travesties occurring due to CAFOs is a loss of biodiversity that's also affecting wildlife. The Guardian reported that 40 million hectares (nearly 100 million acres) of land have been slated for agricultural purposes over the last 10 years, particularly in Africa. Meanwhile, in the last four decades, wildlife populations globally have declined by 50 percent.14 There may not immediately appear to be a connection, but consider the following:15

  • Half of the remaining 15,000 wild jaguars in the world live in Brazil, where grasslands and rainforests are increasingly being converted into soy plantations. Most of the soy is being grown to feed CAFO animals.
  • In Sumatra, lowland forests which Sumatran elephants depend on to live and survive, are being cleared out to plant palm plantations. A byproduct of this industry, palm kernels, is used to feed CAFO animals in Europe, making the palm industry more profitable and thus encouraging the clearing of more land.
  • In South Africa, native penguins are facing a food shortage, caused by commercial fisheries (CAFOs of the sea) catching massive quantities of fish. The fish are ground into fishmeal used to feed farm-raised salmon as well as CAFO chickens.

It's time for CAFOs and other forms of industrial agriculture to go extinct before the environmental devastation they're creating can no longer be reversed. You can help to prompt significant change in the agricultural industry by boycotting CAFO and GE products and instead purchasing grass fed foods grown only by local farmers who are using natural methods and soil-regenerative techniques, such as no-till, cover crops, composting and livestock integration.

Look for farmers markets, food co-ops and direct-from-the-farm sales in your area — these sustainable alternatives are growing rapidly across the U.S. and will offer you fresher, healthier food and the satisfaction of knowing you are helping to drive permanent positive changes in food production for a better planet.