September 27, 2018

What Do We Do with All This Poop?

Lacey Gaechter

Lacey Gaechter

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Figure 1. Click to enlarge.

This post is the third in a series—Connecting Agriculture Policy to Your Health—by CLF-Lerner Fellow Lacey Gaechter.

What do we do with all this poop? This question has been central to the field of public health since its very inception. John Snow, the “father of public health,” ended a nineteenth-century cholera epidemic in London by deducing that the source of this disease was drinking water contaminated with sewage.

This important question is also part of the current debates in the joint House and Senate conference committee (see figure 1) on the 2018 Farm Bill. In this case, the poop under consideration is from farmed animals instead of humans. The House version of the next Farm Bill would ostensibly increase funding for managing manure from industrial animal agriculture and the Senate bill would likely reduce it.

The question of poop management currently under debate falls under the working lands conservation program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The current iteration of EQIP has emerged from a fascinating history. It was originally conceived as purely a soil conservation program. Eventually, however, the USDA began devoting about 10 percent of EQIP funding to helping industrial food animal producers come into compliance with Clean Water Act standards through the construction of poop lagoons. Yep, poop lagoons, which are lined pits in which we store the many tons of manure produced by animals raised in CAFOs (see figure 2). These pits are funded at the highest level of any single “conservation” practice implemented on working lands and cost US taxpayers about $80 million per year.

Figure 2.

The good things about the livestock manure lagoon system include:

  1. Properly constructed manure lagoons are waterproof and thus keep fecal bacteria and other harmful substances out of underground drinking water supplies.
  2. Most large, industrial animal agriculture facilities produce too much poop for the nearby land to absorb, so the lagoons provide an opportunity to store manure until we can transport it to far off locations where its nutrients are needed.

The bad things about the manure lagoon system include:

  1. It is exactly as terrible as you would think to live next to a manure lagoon, including for the family that operates it. Among other things, proximity to a pit of thousands of tons of poop dramatically lowers your property value, exposes you to airborne pathogens and insects attracted to feces, and ensures that you do not want to spend much time outside.
  2. Manure lagoons contaminate ground and surface water when they leak or overflow during rain and flood events—just was we have seen in North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Florence.
  3. Once you transport all this poop off-site it is no longer governed by the Clean Water Act, which leaves nothing to protect the public from disease outbreaks and other exposures caused by applying untreated manure to crops.

The 2018 Farm Bill passed by the House of Representatives calls for an increase in funding for EQIP and thus, presumably, manure lagoons. Although EQIP does, in fact, include many practices that are unequivocally beneficial for soil, environmental and human health, it seems fair to question whether US citizens really want to foot an even larger bill for containing poop from industrial animal agriculture. An additional major downside with this plan is that it altogether eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), rolling only parts of it into the expanded EQIP.

The Senate version of the 2018 Farm Bill reduces funding for both EQIP and CSP, but would keep CSP intact and eliminate the EQIP requirement to devote 60 percent of funding to livestock operations. The latter provision would at least provide the opportunity to shift funding from poop lagoons to practices that can more accurately be dubbed “conservation measures,” rather than simply compliance with Clean Water Act regulations.

Some groups have proposed directing conservation dollars away from the Band-Aid lagoon “solution,” which actually just allows the problem of industrial animal agriculture to propagate. Instead, they suggest using part of our working lands conservation funds to support “Sustainable Livestock” rotational grazing operations. These proposed systems would, by necessity, reduce farmed animal population densities, eliminating the need for manure lagoons. In other words, we would pay farmers to keep their livestock populations small enough that all manure can stay on-site without overwhelming the local ecosystem.

Unfortunately, neither the House nor the Senate Farm Bill include this approach to animal agriculture waste management. Thus the conference negotiating our final Farm Bill is left with the choice between more or fewer tax-payer funded manure lagoons embedded within our working lands conservations programs.

Human societies have come a long way since the days of John Snow. I think we can do better when it comes to managing manure.

What do you think?

Do we need more manure lagoons?

Is the solution to start treating farmed animal sewage the same way we do human sewage?

Is the key to Sustainable Livestock simply fewer farmed animals?

For a more in-depth discussion and references, find the PDF version of this blogpost here. 

Figure 1. Each legislative branch has voted on its version of the 2018 Farm Bill. Now representatives from the House and Senate come together in what’s called a conference committee – highlighted in red – to negotiate the final Farm Bill, based on both versions passed independently. Either chamber of Congress can then accept or reject the conference committee’s version. Image adapted from World Vision Advocacy.

Figure 2. Dairy farm manure lagoon with veal crates in the immediate background and the milking barn in the far background. Related video. Watch the video.

 

2 Comments

  1. The biggest factor affecting this in the farm bill is market management, where Congress reduced (1942-52) and ended price floor programs, forcing farmers to subsidize the loss of their own livestock, and now most farms have lost livestock, and therefore lost economic uses for the main sustainable crops, (livestock feeds like grass, alfalfa, clover and nurse crops like oats and barley). This is a multitrillion dollar issue at the farm level, but it translates into much larger changes, such as the loss of the infrastructure for diversity. All conservation programs are relatively tiny (under 5% of $) in comparison to market management impacts, and similar for the number of farms affected. We lose money one exports on these changes, (vs full costs,) and Congress has chosen that, to force farmers to subsidize US and global agribusiness, resulting then in the changes. This doesn’t fit your concluding questions.

  2. Lacey Gaechter

    Posted by Lacey Gaechter

    Brad – Thank you for adding to this conversation. We do, indeed, focus this blog series on only one, relatively tiny, aspect of the Farm Bill.

    Do I correctly understand your assessment being that we need more subsidies for livestock production in order to create a market for sustainable livestock feeds?

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