It’s hard to shock people anymore when it comes to how horrifically their food is prepared, produced or served. Whether it’s a movie like Super Size Me, a network news special “Behind the Scenes” report or a friend informing you that industrialized farming is the equivalent of taking a fine juicy steak dumping it in a dirty fish tank and then cleaning it off with the foulest of chemicals and household cleaners. Most of us have heard it all before and our usual response is “well it hasn’t harmed me yet, now let’s eat”. Well it’s unfortunate to say that bad food isn’t the only detriment of industrial farms. An article in the New York Times entitled “Health Ills Abound as Farm Runoff Fouls Wells” talks about another casualty of engineering agriculture, clean water.
In class we discussed the runoff of synthetic manure into waterways which brings a toxic amount of nitrogen into these ecosystems. Reporter Charles Duhigg found more “au naturale” runoff polluting the heart of America’s cheese land. Farmers in Wisconsin raise herds of dairy cows by the thousands. These farms use the copious amounts of manure these cows create to fertilize their grain fields which will in turn feed the cows. While this seems like a useful and responsible use of the cows wastes Duhigg explains how when the manure that these cows produce is laid across the land it is done in excess. Wisconsin’s grain fields are literally brimming with manure. This mostly liquid waste can be easily runoff by moving water like rain or the spring thaw which will then move it into lakes, streams and the well water of many residents that border these farms making them sick and contaminating their wells for months afterwards. (Duhigg, 2009)
Not long ago I read a book of Non-Fiction called A Civil Action by author Jonathan Harr. The book tells the startling tale of the town of Woburn, MA. In the 1970’s Woburn had two large factories that were very likely dumping a chemical degreasing solvent called TCE on their properties. This chemical leeched through the soil it was dumped on and into the ground water and through subterranean waterways found its way into two of the town’s wells. The effect of this chemical was startling. Numerous cases of Leukemia sprang up at such an astounding rate it was like people in the town suddenly swapped their daily granola bars with glowing bars of uranium. The wells were eventually shut off permanently but the case brought against the two large corporations behind the factories featured an abundance of plaintiffs. I don’t want to spoil the story but the trial was never seen to a true fruition. Not that it could’ve brought back the lives of those lost but to this day no one was ever held accountable for the turmoil of the people of Woburn. (Harr, 1995)
The same can be said for the case against these Wisconsin farmers. It remains to be seen if any of these farms can be made to pay for the mess they and their cows have made. The irony of this is the comparison of a farm to a factory. Industrialized agriculture has transformed our dairy farms into dairy factories. The pollution of smog is replaced by the pollution of bovine flatulence (I’m not joking, look it up) and sludge is replaced by the cow’s rotten, liquid manure. Now, in a factory producing keyboards maybe most people wouldn’t have a problem with some toxic substances being swept up in the factories daily processing. In a dairy farm however we should probably hold a bit more prudence not to defecate where we eat.
Photo courtesy of Damon Winter-The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/09/18/us/20090918DAIRY_4.html
Duhigg, C (2009, September 18). Health ills abound as farm runoff fouls wells. The New York Times, pp. A1.
Harr, J (1995). A civil action. New York: Random House.