How are Poultry Farms Affecting the Environment?

I had read sections of books about factory farming of poultry in the U.S., knew that it sounded awful, but I really didn’t feel like I knew the details. What I have discovered in this past week is very disturbing. I have written this post so that you can get a glimpse into what is going on. I am hoping that if you haven’t already, this may prompt you to stop buying and eating poultry all together. If you are already a vegetarian or vegan, I am hoping that it will provide the information you need to inform others who may still be buying and consuming poultry products.

First, poultry is defined as a category of domesticated birds kept by humans for the purpose of collecting their eggs, or killing them for their meat and/or feathers. This include chickens, turkeys, ducks, quails and pheasants. If the definition isn’t enough to turn your stomach, the way in which the process has evolved will.

As the need for eggs and meat have grown over the years, poultry companies have turned to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations aka ‘factory farming’ of the poultry in order to reduce costs and increase production. According to the National Chicken Council, more than 99% of the poultry consumed by humans are produced on these factory farms.

Now, at first, this may seem like a reasonable reaction aka ‘supply and demand’ but we are not talking about widgets here – we are talking about living creatures who are being confined in horrendous environments, workers being exposed to horrific amounts of chemicals and land being polluted by waste products.

All of this is going on in multiple areas of the United States and in most cases, the only people who knew about how it was changing the environment were the ones directly affected. But, I believe it has gone past that point; we are all affected by the environmental hazards being created by these massive poultry farms.

Although the conditions in these factory farms for the animals and the humans is a topic that should be discussed, I will postpone discussion of it in order to focus on the environmental aspects in this post.

Let’s look at a specific example of what these farms are doing to the land and the environment.

More than 600 million chickens a year are raised in the Delamarva Peninsula near the Chesapeake Bay. The chickens produce more manure than a city of four million people but instead of being handled like human waste, it is spread on fields. Poultry manure is extremely high in ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorus – all considered serious potential pollutants. Half of the poultry manure that is spread on fields washes into the rivers and streams or gets into the groundwater. This means that toxic waste is going into the underground aquifers used for human drinking water and into natural bodies of water where it collects and wreaks havoc on the fragile ecosystems.

Ammonia is toxic to aquatic life and reduces the level of oxygen. Too much ammonia and other forms of nitrogen can lead to fish kills, reduced biodiversity, and growth of toxic organisms. These affects have been clearly seen in the Chesapeake Bay ‘dead zones.’ Some of these stretch for 100 miles down the central portion of the bay.

Poultry operations produce more excess nitrogen (meaning they cannot use the manure as fertilizer) than other animal producers because poultry  manure contains more nitrogen and poultry operations typically have a much smaller land area over which to spread manure. Nitrogen oxides, produced by the breaking down of manure contributes to accumulation of greenhouse gases. They also play an important role in the atmospheric reactions that create smog and acid rain.

If excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen are added to bodies of water, algae and aquatic plants can be produced in large quantities. When these algae die, bacteria decompose them, and use up oxygen. When this happens, oxygen concentrations can drop too low for fish to breathe, leading to fish kills, and the premature ‘aging’ of a lake.

Unfortunately, this is happening all over the US. In places like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, Ohio, New Jersey, and Missouri whole communities are being adversely affected by the poultry factory farms. In some areas the odor around these factory farms is so toxic and harsh, people living nearby cannot breathe without gagging or coughing. Some people become nauseated, experience stomach cramps and diarrhea and develop sores on their mouths. The foul smell also attracts rats and flies which can sometimes overtake large areas near the factory farms including residences and small family farms.

As a wannabe vegan, there have been times I have been tempted to eat chicken (one of my favorites used to be Wendy’s Spicy Chicken sandwiches!) but this has solidified my resolve to never eat chicken or any other kind of poultry again. Not just for the sake of my health, but for the well being of all of those families that are being infected and affected by the pollution from these facilities. Please join me in learning as much as you can about what is happening and doing all you can to stop the practices that are ruining the environment we live in.

Let me know if you have any thoughts and/or suggestions about eating too much protein in the comments section below, on facebook or via twitter.

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3 Responses to How are Poultry Farms Affecting the Environment?

  1. albinomouse says:

    The information about the chemical content of chicken waste was very informative!

    How do you feel about the rise of personal backyard chicken coops, such as the kinds recently allowed in Vancouver, BC Canada? Here we’re allowed to keep a few hens for egg production provided you have a house with a large enough backyard and a chicken coop.

    • I am so glad you found my post so informative! 🙂 Thank you also for your question.

      I think the rise of personal backyard chicken coops can be a good thing. First, it brings the process home. This can mean a number of positive changes for people and animals. People understand and learn the process and the animals are treated much more humanely. I also think there is a higher likelihood of people realizing that chickens are much more intelligent and worthy of respect if they are spending time with them on a daily basis and becoming attached to them; they become more like a pet than a ‘commodity’ to be consumed. Second, the conditions that the chickens are living in are immensely better than in the factory farming facilities. At least they have a chance to be a chicken, mingle with other chickens and enjoy being outdoors. They also do not suffer the horrendous practices of de-beaking, starvation to force molting (of hens), and open sores from being confined that are rampant in the industry. Finally, it gives people their power back to make better choices about how they are impacting the earth. Instead of buying mass produced eggs, people are spending their money on products and information that improves their understanding of the food cycle and potentially their health. They will see the entire process and be able to make better decisions about whether they want to participate or not. My hope is that they will realize that chickens are worthy of living a full and natural life and are valuable just by being here; not just by how they can potentially feed us.

      What are your thoughts?

      • albinomouse says:

        Well, I used to have a pet chicken when I was younger and it was always great to find an egg or two so I’m definitely a fan of keeping urban chickens. Anything that brings people closer to their food and further from the disconnection that you get in supermarkets is a good thing, I think.

        Although I am not a vegetarian, I do try to limit my meat intake. Information such as what you provided definitely strengthens my resolve to eat less meat both for my own health and ethical concerns, but also for the health of the environment.

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