Sunday, July 29, 2012

Meat & (Jewish) Ethics: Would You Like Some Feces With Your Water?

I went to the public library before Shabbat and when wandering through the Reading List aisles (always my favorite section), happened across And The Waters Turned to Blood by Rodney Barker. It seemed to be a science fiction novel about the discovery of a deadly organism that was killing fish, could affect short-term memory (causing its loss and lack of comprehension) and that enjoyed eating human blood. I like a good thriller, so I picked it up.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that the content of the book was actually real.

Pfiesteria piscida is a dinoflagellate that attacks fish but enjoys human blood as well (and perhaps blood of all mammals). It has a very complex life cycle. In its simple form, it kills fish. However, a microfaunal predator eats this dinoflagellate. Therefore, the dinoflagellate in its sexual stage undergoes an amazing transformation where it morphs into a "bizarre, bristly amoeba" (76) that eats the microfaunal predator that kills it in its smaller form. Thus, "the dinoflagellate actually appeared to be acting in a somewhat protective role toward the smaller stages in the life cycle, coming to the rescue of its little brothers and sisters."

The reason the discovery of pfiesteria piscida was so important is because it explained one of the reasons for fish kills that were going on in North Carolina and eventually Maryland in the late 1980s and 1990s. Pfiesteria can also cause adverse effects in humans who were directly exposed, such as lesions, sores, short-term memory loss and confusion.

Barker's book is fascinating in that it shows the lengths to which North Carolina's Department of Health was willing to go to try to pretend that there was nothing to the pfiesteria issue- to the point that they were lax about putting up signs advising beachgoers, waders, swimmers or others out and about on the water that there had been fish kills caused by pfiesteria.

Anyway, the point that I found most interesting was that pfiesteria thrives in "nutrient-rich" waters, which can also refer to polluted or soiled water. Well, guess what can create nutrient-rich waters? Factory farming. Here's the excerpt straight out of the book:
Although there were some who refused to abandon the belief that Texasgulf was to blame, Burkholder did not consider a single industry responsible for Pfiesteria. She was unable even to point to a particular factor, over and above the other contributors, that might have pushed the state over the brink- until the spring of 1995, when she read a series of investigative articles in the News & Observer. In a matter of just a few years, it was revealed, a virtual hog revolution had taken place in North Carolina. 
She would never forget, and could recite from memory a year later, the opening paragraphs of the first article she read: 
"Imagine a city as big as New York suddenly grafted onto North Carolina's coastal plain. Double it. 
"Now imagine that this city has no sewage treatment plants. All the wastes from 15 million people are simply flushed into open pits and sprayed onto fields. 
"Turn these humans into hogs and you don't have to imagine at all. It's here." 
The series made a devastating case that North Carolina had sold its soul and sacrificed its environment to corporate hog farming. It reported how the state, committed to maintaining a semblance of an agriculture industry and seeking alternatives to tobacco, had courted the swine industry with tax breaks, protection from local zoning, and exemptions from tough environmental regulations. It described how an alliance between pork producers and elected officials had transformed the political landscape, allowing laws to be passed that gave hog farms the preferential treatment traditionally extended to family farmers, when the reality was that hog operations were more like factories, with climate-controlled confinement barns and automated feeding equipment that produced hogs in numbers that had attracted international markets and was generating $1 billion a year, propelling North Carolina to the nations' number two spot in hog production behind Iowa. 
The news that a major industry that depended upon lax state laws to maximize its profits had snuck through the back door was sobering to Burkholder, as it was to a lot of readers. But what really got to her were the articles that dealt with the waste generated by these large farms. This vast swine city, as it turned out, was essentially allowed to use the equivalent of outhouses for disposing of ten million tons of waste each year. 
According to the wisdom advocated by the industry, hog manure could be handled satisfactorily by flushing it into clay-lined holes in the ground called lagoons, where bacteria were supposed to biodegrade the sewage, which would then be sprayed on nearby croplands as fertilizer. But it was an approach to waste disposal that critics called inadequate and environmentally foolhardy, in light of eastern North Carolina's sandy soils and its shallow water table, which was especially vulnerable to groundwater pollution. Making matters worse, most of the lagoons were conveniently located near waterways; these received the runoff when the surrounding lands couldn't abosrb the fertilizer sprayed on them, not to mention the documented cases of farmers deliberately discharging lagoon waste into ditches that led to streams. 
The water-quality implications for coastal North Carolina were monumental: Manure that was rich in nitrogen and phosphorus was finding its way into already overloaded "nutrient sensitive" waters. And as if that weren't enough, the series went on to point out that this expansion had been aided by state agencies that ahd been slow to act on the growing range of problems resulting from the earlier increase. While state law required all new livestock operations to have certified waste management plans, government officials were leaving certification up to the hog farmers, nor were they sending out inspectors to make sure the plans were being fulfilled or to check for violations. Echoing Burkholder's own conclusions about DEM, the articles declared: "the state's anti-pollution cop has neither the staff nor the will to get the job done." 
When the series, which would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize for the News & Observer, finished its run, Burkholder was more cynical than ever about the way business was conducted in North Carolina. It was a miserable situation, she thought; one primed to get worse, because leakage from lagoons and intentional releases weren't the only way harmful animal waste could enter the waterways. Sooner or later, she knew, an accident resulting in a major spill was bound to happen.  
~pages 233-235
In June 1995, there was a huge hog manure lagoon spill that released "twenty-five million gallons of hog feces and urine: that was twice the size of the Valdez oil spill and by far the largest such spill in state history" (236).

I'm not a tree-hugging environmentalist, but after reading this book, it came to me that all of this is related. When we treat the environment badly (say, by deciding to create factory farms and use manure lagoons to store the hog waste), we end up the losers (say, because the manure lagoons overflow into our water and we end up with water that is full of feces, and that also makes it easier for fish-killing dinoflagellates, amidst other bacteria, to exist and cause problems for the fish and for us). There's a reason that God developed the world in the way that He did, and that Adam and Eve were to care for all the trees and crops (and not a monoculture like corn). We create what we get, and right now what we've created with factory farming (at least per the books I've read so far) is a monstrosity- the animals are treated cruelly, the waste is deposited in an absymally poor way, and should the waste flow into our water, we help to kill our fish and destroy the ability of the water to nurture healthy creatures.

 (Granted: Hopefully there have been updates to hog farming since the time this book was published in 1997, and hopefully manure lagoons, if they are still being used, are being created in a more mindful way. But it's still pretty disturbing that something like this happened, even if it's hopefully not happening anymore.)


Anonymous said...

"Hopefully there have been updates to hog farming since the time this book was published in 1997"

Reality: not really. The problems listed in this article still exist as of 2010.

The following quote is from a 2010 report I found on the CDC website (linked below).

"Oxygen depletion once again causes indigenous aquatic life to
die. Some algal blooms can contain toxic algae and other microorganisms, including Pfiesteria, which has
caused large fish kills in North Carolina, Maryland, and the Chesapeake Bay area (Spellman & Whiting, 2007)"

Tzipporah said...

Once you open your eyes to this issue, you'll likely find more than you ever thought possible. It's really overwhelming!

Anonymous said...

Would you like some feces with your chicken?

You want feces with your steak?

You want feces with your meat?

You want arsenic, prozac, and feces with your chicken sandwich?

Enough said.

Philo said...

"I'm not a tree-hugging environmentalist, but after reading this book, it came to me that all of this is related."

Why the disclaimer? What exactly is wrong with being a passionate environmentalist? Why aren't we all?