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Chinese farms cause more pollution than factories, says official survey

Groundbreaking government survey pinpoints fertilisers and pesticides as greater source of water contamination

Pollution from toxin in Chinese farmland, Guangzhou, China

Overuse of fertilisers and pesticides has sent agricultural pollution through the roof. Photograph: Alex Hofford/EPA

Farmers’ fields are a bigger source of water contamination in China than factory effluent, the Chinese government revealed today in its first census on pollution.

Senior officials said the disclosure, after a two-year study involving 570,000 people, would require a partial realignment of environmental policy from smoke stacks to chicken coops, cow sheds and fruit orchards.

Despite the sharp upward revision of figures on rural contamination, the government suggested the country’s pollution problem may be close to – or even past – a peak. That claim is likely to prompt scepticism among environmental groups.

 

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The release of the groundbreaking report was reportedly delayed by resistance from the agriculture ministry, which had previously insisted that farms contributed only a tiny fraction of pollution in China.

The census disproves these claims completely. According to the study, agriculture is responsible for 43.7% of the nation’s chemical oxygen demand (the main measure of organic compounds in water), 67% of phosphorus and 57% of nitrogen discharges.

At the launch of the paper, Wang Yangliang of the ministry of agriculture recognised the fall-out from intensive farming methods.

“Fertilisers and pesticides have played an important role in enhancing productivity but in certain areas improper use has had a grave impact on the environment,” he said. “The fast development of livestock breeding and aquaculture has produced a lot of food but they are also major sources of pollution in our lives.”

He said the ministry would introduce measures to improve the efficiency of pesticide and fertiliser use, to expand biogas generation from animal waste, and to change agricultural lifestyles to protect the environment.

While the high figure for rural pollution is partly explained by the immense size of China’s agricultural sector, it also reflects the country’s massive dependency on artificial farm inputs such as fertilisers.

The government says this is necessary because China uses only 7% of the world’s land to feed 22% of the global population. An industrial lobby is pushing for even greater use of chemicals. It includes the huge power company CNOOC, which runs the country’s largest nitrogen fertiliser factory in Hainan’s Dongfang City.

But the returns on this chemical investment are poor. According to a recent Greenpeace report, the country consumes 35% of the world’s nitrogen fertiliser, which wastes energy and other resources, while adding to water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Agricultural pollution has become one of China’s gravest environmental crises,” said Greenpeace campaign director Sze Pangcheung. “China needs to step up the fight against the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides and promote ecological agriculture which has obvious advantages for human heath, the environment, and sustainable development of agriculture.”

Wen Tiejun, dean of the school of agriculture and rural development at Renmin university, said the survey should be used as a turning point. His research suggested that Chinese farmers used almost twice as much fertiliser as they needed.

“For almost all of China’s 5,000-year history, agriculture had given our country a carbon-absorbing economy but in the past 40 years, agriculture has become one of the top pollution sources,” he said. “Experience shows that we don’t have to rely on chemical farming to resolve the food security issue. The government needs to foster low-pollution agriculture.”

But in what appears to be a statistical sleight of hand, the government said the new agricultural data and other figures from the census would not be used to evaluate the success of its five-year plan to reduce pollution by 10%.

Zhang Lijun, the environmental protection vice-minister, claimed China was cleaning up its pollution problem far faster than other countries during their dirty stage of development.

“Because China follows a different pattern of development, it is very likely that pollution will peak when per capita income reaches US$3,000,” he said, comparing this with the $8,000 he said was the norm in other nations.

If true, it would suggest the worst of China’s pollution problems may already be over. According to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, per capita incomes in China have already passed this point. If exchange rates and a low cost of living are factored in, Chinese incomes may be equivalent to more than $6,000.

But Zhang’s claim is contestable. As countless pollution scandals have revealed, many industries and local governments routinely under-report emissions and waste.

Many harmful or controversial forms of pollution are either not measured – as is the case for carbon dioxide and small particle emissions – or the data is not made public, as is the case for ozone.

Zheng said the government would expand its monitoring system in the next five-year plan.

Extracts from China’s first pollution report (for 2007):

• Sulphur dioxide emissions 23.2 million tonnes (91.3% from industry)

• Nitrogen oxide emissions: 18 million tonnes (30% from vehicles)

• Chemical oxygen demand discharges: 30.3 billion tonnes (44% from agriculture)

• Soot: 11.7 million tonnes.

• Solid waste: 3.8 billion tonnes (of which 45.7m tonnes is hazardous)

• Heavy metal discharges: 900 tonnes

• Livestock faeces: 243 million tonnes.

• Livestock urine: 163 million tonnes

• Plastic film on cropfields: 121,000 tonnes (80.3% recycled)

 
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Giant livestock farms that are known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs house thousands of cows, chickens or pigs and produce staggering amounts of animal manure. The way these wastes are stored and used has profound effects on human health and the environment.

A giant factory farm in North Carolina

A giant factory farm in North Carolina; the brown rectangle at left is a waste lagoon.

On most factory farms, animals are crowded into relatively small areas; their manure and urine are funneled into massive waste lagoons. These cesspools often break, leak or overflow, sending dangerous microbes, nitrate pollution and drug-resistant bacteria into water supplies. Factory-farm lagoons also emit toxic gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane. What’s more, the farms often spray the manure onto land, ostensibly as fertilizer — these “sprayfields” bring still more of these harmful substances into our air and water.

Yet in spite of the huge amounts of animal wastes that factory farms produce, they have largely escaped pollution regulations; loopholes in the law and weak enforcement share the blame. NRDC has fought, and won, a number of courtroom battles over the years to force the federal government to deal with the problem of factory farms, but more protections are needed to adequately protect public health and the environment from CAFO pollution.

Threats to Human Health

People who live near or work at factory farms breathe in hundreds of gases, which are formed as manure decomposes. The stench can be unbearable, but worse still, the gases contain many harmful chemicals. For instance, one gas released by the lagoons, hydrogen sulfide, is dangerous even at low levels. Its effects — which are irreversible — range from sore throat to seizures, comas and even death. Other health effects associated with the gases from factory farms include headaches, shortness of breath, wheezing, excessive coughing and diarrhea.

Animal waste also contaminates drinking water supplies. For example, nitrates often seep from lagoons and sprayfields into groundwater. Drinking water contaminated with nitrates can increase the risk of blue baby syndrome, which can cause deaths in infants. High levels of nitrates in drinking water near hog factories have also been linked to spontaneous abortions. Several disease outbreaks related to drinking water have been traced to bacteria and viruses from waste.

On top of this, the widespread use of antibiotics also poses dangers. Large-scale animal factories often give animals antibiotics to promote growth, or to compensate for illness resulting from crowded conditions. These antibiotics are entering the environment and the food chain, contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and making it harder to treat human diseases.

Threats to the Natural Environment

LAGOONS AND SPRAYFIELDS

Some people hear the word “lagoon” and picture blue water, surrounded by palm trees, perhaps, or with mountains in the background. A visit to a factory farm would quickly erase this beautiful image from their minds.

At factory farms, “lagoon” means an open-air pit filled with urine and manure. Lotsof urine and manure — some lagoons are larger than seven acres and contain as much as 20 to 45 million gallons of wastewater. The waste is collected with scrapers, flushing systems, or gravity flow gutters, and then stored in lagoons. Opportunities for disaster abound. The lagoons can leak or rupture, for instance, or they can be filled too high and overflow after a rain. But even if none of these problems occur, the lagoons still release gases. Their horrible stench and toxic chemicals harm workers and nearby residents.

Sprayfields are yet another threat. Manure is periodically pumped out of lagoons and sprayed on fields. Although manure can be an excellent fertilizer when it is applied at rates that crops can absorb, it must be safely — and sensibly — applied. But factory farms produce far more manure than their land requires, and they often overapply it to fields as a way to get rid of it, causing it to run off the fields and into rivers and streams. Farmers may also spray when it is rainy or windy, or with little regard for adjacent property. In addition, the act of spraying wastes increases evaporation and vaporization of pollutants.

The natural environment also suffers in many ways from factory-farming practices. Sometimes the damage is sudden and catastrophic, as when a ruptured lagoon causes a massive fish kill. At other times, it is cumulative — for example, when manure is repeatedly overapplied, it runs off the land and accumulates as nutrient pollution in waterways.

Either way, the effects are severe. For instance, water quality across the country is threatened by phosphorus and nitrogen, two nutrients present in animal wastes. In excessive amounts, nutrients often cause an explosion of algae that robs water of oxygen, killing aquatic life. One toxic microorganism, Pfiesteria piscicida, has been implicated in the death of more than one billion fish in coastal waters in North Carolina.

Manure can also contain traces of salt and heavy metals, which can end up in bodies of water and accumulate in the sediment, concentrating as they move up the food chain. And lagoons not only pollute groundwater; they also deplete it. Many factory farms use groundwater for cleaning, cooling and providing drinking water.

Better Alternatives Exist

Practical remedies to these problems do exist. But implementing them will require some important changes in factory farm practices and government oversight:

  • Regulation and accountability. Factory farms are industrial facilities and should be regulated accordingly. They must obtain permits, monitor water quality and pay for cleaning up and disposing their wastes.
  • Increased transparency. The public should know where CAFOs are located, how CAFOs in their neighborhoods dispose of their waste, and what waterbodies or drinking water sources may be at risk. There is not currently a comprehensive database of this critical information, which should be collected and made publicly available.
  • Public awareness and participation. Local governments and residents must have a say in whether to allow factory farms in their communities. The public is also entitled to review and comment on the contents of pollution reduction plans and to enforce the terms, where a factory farm is in violation.
  • New technology. Factory-farm technology standards must be strengthened. The EPA must consider recent technology advances that significantly reduce pathogens.
  • Alternative farming practices. States and the federal government should promote methods of raising livestock that reduce the concentration of animals and use manure safely. Many alternative methods exist; they rely on keeping animal waste drier, which limits problems with spills, runoff and air pollution.
  • Pollution-reduction programs for small feedlots.Voluntary programs must be expanded to encourage smaller factory farms, which fall outside of the regulations for industrial facilities, to improve their management practices and take advantage of available technical assistance and other resources.
  • Consumer pressure. Individuals can help stop factory farm pollution by supporting livestock farms that use sustainable practices. In the grocery store, this means checking meat labels for “organic,” “free range,” “antibiotic-free,” or similar wording, which indicates meat raised in a more sustainable manner. Many sustainable livestock farms also sell directly to consumers or through local farmers’ markets.

    Two extremely useful tools that will help you use your buying power to support alternatives to food from factory farms are the Eat Well Guide and Sustainable Table.

RELATED NRDC WEBPAGES:

NRDC Report: Cesspools of Shame

How factory farm lagoons and sprayfields threaten environmental and public health.

RELATED WEBSITES:

GRACE Factory Farm Project

Updates on animal agriculture issues and efforts to replace factory farms; good links

Waterkeeper Alliance: Pure Farms, Pure Waters

Information on Waterkeeper’s campaign against factory farms.

Scorecard’s Animal Waste Pollution Locator

Lets you look at the amount of animal waste produced in your state and the trends over time; good links as well

Sierra Club: Clean Water & Factory Farms

News, reports and fact sheets from the Sierra Club’s campaign

The U.S. EPA’s Animal Feeding Operations Page

Information on Clean Water Act permitting and factory farms