Which is worse for the environment – poultry or beef?
A study published in 2014 by the National Academy of Sciences, “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States,” says beef is worse.
In fact, the study focuses on a single aspect of raising 9 billion land animals for food in the U.S., of whom 8 billion are chickens: feeding them. It quantifies the impact on land, air and water of cattle grazing and the impact on land, air and water of growing crops for poultry and pigs in confinement. The researchers conclude that “beef production demands about 1 order of magnitude more resources than alternative livestock categories”; hence, “minimizing beef consumption mitigates the environmental costs of diet most effectively.”
Without disputing the data specific to this study, I do dispute the implication that the answer to cattle pollution is to eat more poultry or any other animal product. The environmental impacts of global animal production are vast, complicated, and worsening. The poultry industry in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States is a microcosm of the global expansion of the poultry industry and its baleful effect on land, air, water, and human and animal wellbeing.
Let me explain. In 1990 I founded United Poultry Concerns as a nonprofit organization promoting the compassionate and respectful treatment of chickens and other domestic fowl. In 1998 we moved from Maryland to Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula – a strip of land 70 miles wide and 170 miles long that includes Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. Each year this peninsula holds a half a billion chickens in approximately 5,000 windowless sheds each measuring 500 ft. x 50 ft. often compared to the length of two football fields.
It isn’t just a chicken house here, another one there. Instead you see five, ten or more long, low buildings, each housing thousands of unseen birds, lined up side by side along Route 50 and Route 13 and all over the backroads of Delmarva. North of us, on Route 13, a giant Perdue chicken slaughter plant (“processing complex”) fronts the highway and a little farther on a Tyson complex. Every day truckloads of chickens travel these roads to the slaughter plants.
For decades a conflict has simmered between the environmentalists and the Delmarva poultry industry, periodically spawning reports by The Washington Post and other media about the burden of chicken manure and slaughterhouse waste on the Chesapeake Bay and the “legacy of lenience” that lets industry do as it pleases. A 1999 Washington Post article An Unsavory Byproduct: Runoff and Pollution offers this glimpse:
From the air, the industry’s true scale emerges: A massive operation, global in reach, it dominates the landscape. Chicken houses fill the horizons, nearly 6,000 in all, raising more than 600 million birds a year and turning out more than 750,000 tons of manure. Tractors rake it into soils as fertilizer, the winds carrying the smell of ammonia.
The impact of all that waste – more than produced by a city of 4 million people – is subtle but potent, as it washes off fields and seeps into groundwater. Decades of relentless growth have propelled the poultry industry into the primary source of pollution reaching key portions of the Chesapeake and coastal bays of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.
That was 17 years ago. Today, the poultry industry is expanding on Delmarva, eliciting more calls for regulation. In 2013, the environmental watchdog, Center for Progressive Reform, complained that four years after Maryland had agreed to regulate the state’s poultry industry, government officials still were not protecting the Chesapeake Bay citing a lack of staff and other disincentives to act.
In 2015, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation announced: “Moratorium on New Chicken Houses May Be Necessary if Maryland and EPA Don’t Step up.” The CBF press statement notes that new chicken houses are growing in size and number at an unprecedented rate. The Eastern Shore can’t absorb the manure as the soil is already saturated with it and has been for years. The CBF asks, yet again: “What happens to the tons of new manure?” It begs for “a clear answer that water quality is protected.”
Recently a flurry of protest erupted over a proposal to build a chicken litter incinerator in Northampton County, Virginia, the poor rural county at the bottom of the Delmarva Peninsula where we’re located. Industry claims an incinerator would transform to useable energy the tons of poultry litter produced each year on Delmarva, of which, in Maryland alone, 300,384 tons exceed the capacity of local cropland to assimilate the phosphorus and other waste ingredients, according to a study cited by Food & Water Watch in their May 2012 report Poultry Litter Incineration Not Feasible or Sustainable.
“Poultry litter” is the mixture of fecal droppings, feathers, spilled feed, antibiotic residues, heavy metals, cysts, larvae, dead birds, rodents and sawdust the chickens are forced to sit in for 6 weeks before they are slaughtered. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, used poultry litter has 4 times the nitrogen and 24 times the phosphorus found in pig and dairy cow operations. Dumped on the environment, the mountains of toxic waste burn fragile plant cells, poison the water, and spawn excess algae that consume aquatic nutrients. The algae block sunlight needed by underwater grasses and suffocate fish in the process of decay.
Food & Water Watch warns that the incinerator proposal is a scheme to make taxpayers finance the poultry industry’s waste “management” program to produce dirty energy. Toxins emitted by poultry litter incineration include: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, volatile organic compounds, dioxin, particulate matter, and arsenic. These poisons promote respiratory infections, heart disease and cancers in poultry and people alike while polluting land, air and water.
Notwithstanding, permits are being sought to increase the number of chicken houses on Delmarva not only by Tyson and Perdue but by outside investors eager to construct large, multi-house facilities adding to the waste the environmentalists claim could be somehow controlled. But while the diagnosis is detailed, solutions are weak, perhaps because, substantively, there are none. There is no good place on Delmarva, or the earth for that matter, for the manure and slaughterhouse waste and animal misery generated by global chicken consumption. I emphasize consumption, because human consumption is the engine that drives the production that causes the environmental destruction.
Delmarva residents don’t want chicken sheds, slaughterhouses and toxic waste in their backyard. But as noted, the Delmarva Peninsula is a microcosm of a global predicament. If we don’t want the chicken industry in our backyard – and our backyard is ultimately the planet – we must start by getting the chicken houses and slaughterhouses out of our kitchens and expand our efforts for a livable planet from there.
One morning I stood outside the Perdue chicken slaughter complex on Route 13 in Accomack County, Virginia. Happening to look down at my feet I saw, beaten into the dirt, hundreds of little chicken faces, small decapitated heads and impressions of previous little faces that must have toppled out of the dump trucks as the driver turned the corner to bear these waste objects off to a landfill or rendering plant somewhere.
One late February afternoon, on impulse, I swerve off Route 13 onto the road leading into the Tyson complex, pass the turnstile, and sit in my car with the windows up, gazing at the scene around back. It is an ugly, dirty, desolate sight. A truckload of chickens sits alone on the dock next to the building where the people inside will kill them, and it will not be a humane death. Apart from some scuttling rubbish and a few seagulls here and there, nothing from where I sit appears to move. The chickens appear silent and still, and no human beings are visible in this moment of understanding, for the umpteenth time, the presumption of being a witness with something to say about another soul’s experience of being in hell.
Life doesn’t have to be this way, nor should it be.
KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. She is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry and other books and articles examining these issues.