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.
Cathy Stepp recently declared that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which she heads, will take direct control of the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center, currently operated by the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
What vital interest do Wisconsin taxpayers have in taking jobs from the private sector and adding them to the government payroll? Secretary Stepp explains that the state needs to recruit more hunters, anglers and trappers. Left largely unanswered is why all taxpayers must ante up to promote pastimes practiced by a dwindling few. The secretary has attempted to cost-justify her decision this way: “Hunting, fishing and trapping is our heritage, it is in our DNA, and it makes us Wisconsin.” More on that notion in a moment. First, consider the DNR’s current numbers about one of our legacies: trapping.
The DNR’s most recent fur harvest summary, for 2011-12, shows the commercial nature of trapping. Muskrats and raccoons comprised 87 percent of fur-bearing animals trapped and killed in Wisconsin, and the skins of 90 percent of them were sold. That 90 percent is about the same percent for the total of all 12 of the fur-bearing species tracked by the DNR. Of the 588,000 mammals snared and skinned, trappers made money on 516,000 of them.
These statistics raise the question: Who is buying all these skins? Most of the trappers’ “harvest” in the U.S. is sold overseas, especially to China.
The Chinese and other countries with low labor costs convert the fur into clothing, much of it exported back to the U.S. as trim on parkas and other winter wear.
But these days you seldom see a “made from” clothing tag that lists muskrat or raccoon, or the third most trapped animal in Wisconsin, opossum.
That’s because the clothing manufacturers know that most Americans have become repelled by the idea of wearing fur. Today many humane alternatives exist. So some manufacturers and marketers mislabel the actual fur as “faux fur” or “fake fur.” It’s a good deal for the trapper and dishonest dealer, but not for all involved.
Within the first 30 minutes of capture, a trapped animal can tear her flesh, rip tendons, break bones, and even knock out teeth as she bites the trap to escape.
Some animals will even bite off their own limbs in a desperate attempt to escape. The fact that an animal would sever her own limb shows how horrible the experience of being caught in a trap is. One study found that 28 percent of mink, 24 percent of raccoon, and 26 percent of trapped fox would actually bite their limbs off in hopes of surviving.
In Wisconsin centuries ago, clothing options were few. People often needed to trap to survive. But what in those days was a violent necessity — and they didn’t call it a sport — is today just a cruel money-maker.
Perhaps barbarity like this is part of our DNA, as Cathy Stepp suggests. But not all human urges deserve celebration or taxpayer support. If we want to use our past as a guide to our decisions and actions today, look to Wisconsin’s progressive heritage of adapting to the times — of challenging traditions that have become unjust, unwarranted and unnecessarily violent. That would be a vision of leadership desperately needed right now at the DNR.
Charlie Talbert is president of the board of the Madison-based Alliance for Animals and the Environment.