An editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal recently asserted that there would be public outcry if a factory farm had been responsible for the 300,000 gallons of phosphorus-laden manure spilled on Nov. 24 into Six Mile Creek, a tributary to Madison’s lakes.
But in fact, factory farms are the cause of this spill. Two of the three principal dairy operations that pipe poop to the Waunakee manure digester are designated CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The three together hold about 3,000 cows. Some perspective: The EPA estimates that just 2,500 cows generate as much waste as a city the size of Miami.
Media reporting has placed only the digester in the spotlight of blame. And yes, equipment or human error there is the proximate cause, but it’s not the ultimate one. Cows excrete manure, not facilities.
Holding the digester alone responsible for this mess unfairly implicates its principal source of funding, the public. Taxpayers paid for most of this $12 million digester. The remaining money came from Clear Horizons LLC, which will be repaid from the sale of electricity the digester generates. The CAFOs themselves paid nothing toward the cost of construction. And they pay nothing toward its ongoing operating costs.
Imagine any other industry that could dump its pollution costs this way onto taxpayers. It wouldn’t be the manufacturing industry. Consider the recent experience of the Madison-Kipp aluminum die cast factory in Madison. For polluting nearby groundwater, it’s been ordered to compensate neighbors $7.2 million, and a state environmental lawsuit is pending. Why the difference?
The dairy industry justifies its governmental handouts with a fact we can all agree on: Food is vital. Well yes, food is vital, but dairy isn’t. You’ll find little support from nutrition professionals to the claim that cows’ milk is necessary for human health, except from those the industry pays or, like the USDA, it lavishly lobbies.
On the other hand, a growing body of evidence coming from the Harvard School of Public Health, the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, Kaiser Permanente and other medical organizations challenges the claim that dairy is necessary for human health. On the contrary, they report that dairy products are actually harmful, contributing to prostate and ovarian cancer, diabetes, and cardiac illnesses.
The rationale of the digester was to keep manure out of the Yahara chain of lakes, not to produce electricity. And that’s a good thing. “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” issued by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, reports that animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all of the world’s cars, trains and planes combined. Its energy byproducts, like those from the manure digester, do not come close to compensating for the environmental damage this industry causes.
What to do? We need legislation at the local, state, and federal levels to hold polluters accountable for the damage they cause. We need governmental subsidies and policies for food that make sense for all of us, not just for the well-organized agricultural interests with deep pockets to pay lobbyists. Unfortunately, helpful changes like these are unlikely to happen anytime soon in the current political climate.
But we have other avenues for progress. Consider purchasing fewer dairy and other animal products. This once perhaps radical idea is going mainstream, and it’s not just those concerned about their health or about animals who are including more healthy, plant-based foods in their diets. It’s also people concerned about environmental issues, whether that’s the pollution of our nearby lakes or global climate change. There was other news at the end of November. Al Gore announced that he’d gone vegan. Our choices matter.
Charlie Talbert is board president of Alliance for Animals and the Environment.
NESTLÉ Foods’ said it had severed all ties with a Wisconsin Dairy depicted in an undercover video of animal abuse released by animal rights group Mercy For Animals (MFA). The video, released Dec. 10, showed workers kicking, beating and dragging cows in a way that noted animal welfare expert Temple Grandin described as “very abusive, cruel behavior.”
MFA, known for its undercover video and fervent promotion of a vegan lifestyle, used the video to target Nestlé’s DiGiorno Pizza brand, calling on consumers to “ditch dairy, ditch DiGiorno.”
The video was filmed in October at Wiese Brothers Farms in Greenleaf, Wisc., near Green Bay. Nestlé purchases cheese for its pizzas from Foremost Farms, a regional cooperative with several cheese processing facilities throughout Wisconsin, including a plant in Appleton, where Weise Brothers delivered milk.
Foremost Farms said they will no longer accept milk from the dairy, which said that it has terminated two employees as part of its own investigation into what happened in the video. Industry sources tell Feedstuffs that the farm has been cooperating with local authorities, including the sheriff’s department and prosecuting attorney, in addition to bringing in outside animal welfare experts to audit and evaluate the farm’s policies, procedures, training and management.
Grandin, the Colorado State University professor, said that the problems depicted in the video indicate an obvious deficiency in those areas.
“My experience has been that when problems like these occur it can usually be traced back to a lack of supervision,” she said. “There are clear problems of employee training and employee supervision seen in this video. It takes strong management to make it be known that there are certain things you just don’t do and won’t be tolerated.”
Jim Reynolds, a professor of large animal medicine and welfare at Western University in Pomona, Calif., agreed, saying that there was “nothing defendable in the video,” and that the cows shown in the footage were under stress, in fear and probably in pain. He said that the types of behaviors shown by workers in the video should lead to criminal charges of animal cruelty.
“The employees seen in the video completely lacked basic understanding of animal welfare and animal behavior,” said Reynolds. “They showed no empathy for the cows.”
For its part, MFA used the video to encourage the organization’s supporters to bombard DiGiorno’s Facebook page with negative comments, and specifically to promote a vegan lifestyle.
“Although unconscionable cruelty and violence are standard practice for DiGiorno cheese suppliers, caring consumers can help end the needless suffering of cows and other farmed animals by choosing vegan alternatives to milk, cheese and ice cream,” MFA said via its website. “Cows have a natural lifespan of about 25 years and can produce milk for eight or nine years, but the stress caused by factory farm conditions leads to disease, lameness, and reproductive problems that render cows worthless to the dairy industry by the time they are four or five years old.”
According to published profiles of the farm, Wiese Brothers milked more than 4,300 cows in two facilities as of January 2012. Sources tell Feedstuffs that the operation manages as many as 8,600 animals following an expansion project completed last year.
PETA has taken out over 100 new bus ads in Madison to decry the University of Wisconsin’s use of animals in laboratory research.
Many of the sides and backs of Madison Metro buses now feature a photo of a cat that was used in a science experiment on cochlear implants at the UW-Madison. The cat has a stainless steel bar and screws drilled into its head. The bus reads, “I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments!”
Mick Rusch of Madison Metro says he’s been receiving complaints about the ads. However, he says their policy prohibits only libelous, obscene and fraudulent advertising.
“Our buses are designated a public forum,” he says. “People have the right to voice their opinion and there’s just a lot of leeway to doing that.”
PETA’s Jeremy Beckham says the ad campaign is an effort to make the public aware of research that he says goes on in secret at UW.
“I think if people see this image, which is very shocking, they are going to upset,” says Beckham. “And I think that’s a very healthy reaction. I’m upset too. I just think that people who are upset should be contacting UW-Madison to discuss their concerns.”
A UW-Madison spokesperson didn’t want to comment on PETA’s bus ads, but the UW has vigorously defended its research in the past. In an email, UW confirmed the photo PETA used on the buses was taken four years ago from a pilot study at UW. They say two cats are currently used in research at UW that has helped improve cochlear implants for people with hearing loss.