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.