Redistributed as a Service of the National Library for the Environment*
Animal Waste Management
and the Environment:
Specialist in Environmental Policy
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division
Updated May 12, 1998
List of Boxes
Box 1. Farm
Runoff in California
Lists of Tables
Waste from animal agriculture is an increasingly prominent environmental quality issue. Animal waste, especially excessive nutrient concentrations, is being linked to some environmental problems, especially water pollution The growing number of sites where degradation related to animal waste has been reported has focused attention on this problem and led to discussions of possible responses. Three dimensions make this a complicated challenge for policy makers.
One dimension revolves around both the prevalence of concentrating very large numbers of animals at farm sites (rather than Out in pastures) with greater concentration of wastes, and industrialization where producers raise animals under contract. These changes contribute to a perception by many that such large scale agriculture is increasingly like any other business, and should be regulated in similar ways to protect public health, especially at the larger facilities. The environmental quality questions also include what to do with waste from smaller farm operations that are not regulated under current federal law, and how to address other waste problems, such as air emissions and odor, that are not currently regulated under federal laws.
A second dimension is the role of government, if any, in responding to the animal waste management problem. One aspect of these choices is whether the federal government should build on the regulatory approach of the Clean Water Act and other environmental protection laws, or rely on agriculture programs that are based on voluntary participation and incentives to attract participation with local delivery systems providing technical assistance, cost-sharing, and education. Ongoing efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture are merging aspects of both approaches, but many stakeholders remain cautious about these efforts. A second aspect is determining the federal role as states (and localities) continue to implement and consider many varied laws and programs.
A third dimension is the role of information about many aspects of animal waste. On the one hand, a lack of technical information about these complicated problems and relationships limits discussions of effective responses. At the same time, forces that oppose agricultural concentration and industrialization for social, philosophical, or other reasons are using the environmental debates as an avenue for raising their concerns.
Numerous responses are underway and others are being considered. Environmental protection advocates who cite possible threats to water quality and human health have been joined by others with rural social and economic concerns in pressing for action. Supporters of large-scale commercial agriculture caution that actions should proceed carefully to avoid needless regulations, higher food costs, and other adverse effects on individual agricultural enterprises. Congress has held hearings, briefings, and information sessions on this topic, and two legislative proposals have been introduced (S. T323 and H.R. 3232).
Managing the environmental effects of intensive animal rearing and feeding operations has long been a problem confronting the livestock industry. These facilities, which include confined feeding operations and feedlots, are a specialized part of the livestock production process, largely separate from cropland agriculture. The recent years, manure and waste-handling and disposal problems from intensive animal production have begun to receive attention as these facilities increase in size and the effects of these problems reach beyond the industry to affect others.
A number of forces are at work on this segment of agriculture. These include changes in the livestock industries themselves -- especially concentration of animals in larger facilities, because of cost and production quality advantages. The presence of these types of facilities has led, in some cases, to conflicts between farm operators and their neighbors over such issues as corporate farming, odors, and air and water quality.
The U.S. population of animals in livestock production being raised to feed Americans and other consumers worldwide is very large. The inventory in the most recent agricultural census, collected in 1992, included over 77 million cattle and calves, about 60 million swine, and almost 1 billion broilers. Waste produced by these animals is a valuable soil amendment and source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other crop nutrients, when applied to land in proper amounts (the traditional waste management approach). But, if not properly used or disposed, or if applied in amounts that exceed plant needs, animal waste or its residuals can leach through soil to contaminate ground water or can be transported by runoff to pollute lakes and streams. Thus, as animal production has intensified and concentrated more animals on individual farms, a growing challenge for agriculture is finding sufficient land to dispose of manure, or finding economic alternatives, especially if the supply of land for disposal is insufficient. The parallel challenge for policymakers is determining if the environmental impacts of animal waste management are significant enough to require new remedies and, if so, what strategies are appropriate.
In particular, agriculture's contribution to water quality problems is receiving more focused attention from some groups and from policymakers. For 25 years, the nation has been implementing federal law, the Clean Water Act, to improve the quality of streams, lakes, and estuaries. Throughout that time, considerable progress has been made in controlling pollution from the largest, identifiable industrial and municipal sources. Nevertheless, recent reports by state environmental agencies indicate that 40% of the nation's rivers and streams assessed by states (which are only a small portion of all waters) fail to meet applicable water quality standards. The largest category of sources now degrading water quality is crop and animal pollution which contributes to the degradation of 60% of the assessed waterways that are impaired. Feedlots associated with confined animal feeding operations are the third leading agricultural source of water pollution.
Most segments of agriculture have been exempt from Clean Water Act regulation. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are not exempt, but regulating them and enforcing compliance was not a high priority for federal or state environmental officials until recently. While there is growing recognition of the need to implement current law more effectively and perhaps develop new strategies concerning agriculture's impact on water quality, such policies are resisted by those who object to expanding environmental regulations and potential costs.
Some interests of agricultural and environmental policy have been coming together for over a decade, but the process has been a bumpy one. Agricultural and environmental groups can have trouble communicating with each other because of differing perceptions about what the problems are and how to view them, differing concepts of environmental quality and responsibilities to maintain that quality, as well as differing institutional perspectives.1 The agendas of these groups do not often coincide. Environmentalists have focused on the various ways that agriculture affects environmental quality, beyond soil erosion, while agriculturalists worry about how much response to expanding environmental concerns is enough and whether responding to environmental concerns threatens the ability of producers to maintain earnings. However, representatives of both sides now find more common ground than they did a decade ago.
This report provides background for the current policy debate about animal waste management. It describes the livestock production industry today and public health and environmental concerns related to the industry. It summarizes policies and programs of the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency and recent Clinton Administration initiatives; state programs concerning animal waste management and recent state legislative activity; and dialogues on problems and solutions initiated by some segments of this industry. Finally, it discusses congressional responses to the issues and outlines policy questions likely to shape congressional action.
Three points are important themes that emerge from the discussion in this report. First, the bulk of current policy debate on animal waste issues, both legislative and regulatory, is occurring in states, and that activity is vigorous and multi-faceted. Federal attention followed more recently. Second, dimensions of animal waste problems and solutions (technical and policy) are highly site-specific, which leads to many questions about balancing roles of government, where policies should be set., and the importance of flexibility in policies and programs. Third, recent national attention to these issues reflects some increase in cooperation between agricultural interests and others outside of it concerning agricultural and environmental issues, compared with relations of these groups in the recent past.
Besides waste management, several other issues related to animal agriculture currently are of interest to the public and policymakers. These include meat and poultry inspection requirements; animal health and welfare concerns ranging from animal diseases to humane treatment of farm animals (such as production practices that animal rights activists consider cruel or dangerous to animals) to animal testing for medical research; and social issues (such as impacts of corporate farming and industrialization on traditional family farms and demographic changes in rural areas where residential development becomes a neighbor to agriculture).2 Discussion of these topics is beyond the scope of this report, but their outcomes, like decisions that address waste management issues, could affect animal agriculture operations in the future.
Livestock includes cattle (beet; dairy and veal), swine (hogs and pigs), poultry (chicken and turkeys), and sheep and lambs. Livestock is a large component of the farm economy; cash receipts to the livestock sector in 1996 and 1997 were 93 billion each year, nearly half of the slightly more than $200 billion for all of agriculture.3 The populations of animals are very large. The 1992 Census of Agriculture counted over 77 million cattle and calves, about 60 million swine, and almost 1 billion broilers, for example.4 The inventory of each type of animal gradually shirts in response to changing market conditions and consumer preferences. Changes in geographic location of these animals and how they are raised reflect economic considerations, business relationships, and changing technology. These changes have contributed to low food protein prices and led to increasing concerns about several topics, including environmental effects.
Concentration and geographic location. Livestock production continues to have fewer producers operating at fewer sites. Such concentration offers economies of scale, and depends increasingly on modern technologies and better iriformation. This increasing concentration started first in the poultry industry about 40 years ago, and more recently has been occurring at different rates for all other types of livestock. However, these changes are not uniform across the country; growth is occurring in some states while decline is evident in others.5 Geographic changes in the swine industry are the most dramatic and are in the limelight today. During the 5-year period between 1989 and 1994, swine production grew by 111% in North Carolina, while it declined by 31% in Ohio and by between 10% and 14% in Michigan, Kansas, and Wisconsin.6 Since 1994, significant changes reportedly have continued.
The swine inventory stands at around 60 million, and this figure has climbed about 18% over the past decade.7 During the same period, the number of swine farms dropped by 72%. The largest farms have grown larger, so that now, less than 1% of farms (with at least 2,000 animals) account for 43% of the inventory. All farms with an inventory of at least 1,000 head are less than 3% of the farms, but 60% of the swine are produced on them. The remaining 97% of the farms (raising fewer than 1,000 head) produce only 40% of the inventory. Perhaps more important, states with rapid growth in overall herd size have higher portions of their herds in very large operations. For example, almost 80% of swine sales in North Carolina and South Carolina and Virginia are from operations with at least 5,000 head, compared to only 16% of sales in traditional producing areas.8
The concentration process has been similar for cattle feed operations, which are now centered in the Great Plains. In the top 13 producing states, the number of feedlots has declined by 75% during the past two decades, and the remaining ones have grown larger. The largest feedlots, which number about 70, each have at least 32,000 head. About 90% of the marketed cattle come from only 5% of the feedlots. Very large feedlots have become more common in Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas.
Dairy has undergone a similar shift, although the numbers are less dramatic. Production has grown fastest in the southern and western states, where larger herds with more than 200 animals are common. In these states, herds with more than 200 cows account for about 90% of all milk production and about one-third of the total dairy cow inventory. In more traditional producing areas, such as the upper Midwest, herds with more than 200 cows account for less than 10% of production. Overall, the number of dairy farms has dropped over the past decade by 100,000 (to 150,000 total), while the average herd size has increased by more than 50%.
Concentration of livestock production occurred first with poultry, and it is now the most concentrated segment. Broiler production nearly tripled between 1969 and 1992, while the number of farms with broiler houses dropped by 35%, according to data compiled by the Senate Agriculture Committee minority staff.9 Firms with more than 100,000 broilers accounted for 70% of all sales in 1975, but now account for more than 97% of all sales.
Integration and market change. Growing concentration is an important part of broader changes in business relationships and marketing in the livestock sector, which are often referred to as industrialization. Trends in farm organization and operation include not only fewer farms of a larger average size, but also vertical integration as farmers enter contracts with processors, or integrators. Under these contracts, which can vary widely, producers raise the livestock while integrators actually own the animals, assume marketing risks, and may provide medicine, feed and technical expertise, as well. In these relationships, the producer usually owns the waste. Generally, vertical integration has increased the volume and certainty of supply and improved the market characteristics of the livestock. Producers forgo the risks and uncertainties of the marketplace by becoming contract growers, and as more production comes within these types of relationships, marketing opportunities may decline for those who do not choose or are unable to participate. In economic terms, efficiencies are gained for both producers and integrators at the expense of non-participants.
Critics and some experts say that these changes have broader community and social costs that are undesirable. This vigorous debate is explored in animal agriculture, as well as many other agricultural topics. For example, larger and newer animal operations are typically characterized as more efficient and less labor intensive. A University of Missouri Extension Service study was reported to have concluded that traditional independent swine producers create three times as many local jobs as the larger corporate operations. A study from Virginia Polytechnic Institute compared the economic impact of raising 5,000 swine in two types of enterprises and found that independent farmers produce 10% more jobs, 20% more local retail spending, and 37% more local per capita income.10 Many opponents of industrialization worry that, when these changes occur, even greater problems may be associated with social disruptions than with local economic losses.
Markets are changing as well. Total meat consumption per capita has grown slightly during the past two decades, from more than 192 pounds in 975 to more than 209 pounds in 1996. But the mix has changed considerably, with a decline in beef being countered by an increase in poultry, as shown in the table below.
Table 1. Per Capita Annual
Consumption of Meat, By Major Type
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Agricultural Outlook. Jan/Feb. 1982 and Dec.1997.
The overall livestock sector has grown in this decade, in part to serve expanding demand for protein in a more affluent world. For example, the U.S. has become the largest beef-exporting nation in the world, with between 16% and 20% of world trade in recent years. A decade ago, in 1988, the United States exported under 3% of the domestic beef production, but by 1997, that portion had risen to 7.6%, and is forecast to rise to 8.4% in 1998. Swine trade is similar, growing by an annual average of 4% between 1989 and 997; the United States now accounts for almost 20% of the world's pork exports. ln FYI 997, meat exports were valued at just over $7 billion, with poultry accounting for more than $3 billion of that total. But meat exports were only about one eighth of the $55 billion in agricultural exports in FY 1997.11
1 Zinn, Jeffrey and John Blodgert. "Agriculture meets the environment: Coniniunicating perspectives."Journal of soil and Water Corservation, v.49, no.2(1994): 136-143.
2 See, for example: "Animal Agriculture: Issues for the 105th Congress," CR5 Report 97-279 ENR, Dec. 16, 1997; and "Humane Treatment of Farm Animals: Overview and Selected Issues," CRS Report 95-1195 ENR, Dec 6, 1995
3 USDA, Economic Research Service."Key statistical indicators of the food and fiber sector". Agricultural Outlook. March, 1998: 32.
4 Two sets of numbers are used to describe herd size. The numbers cited above are examples of the inventory, the number of animals at any one time. The Census of Agriculture measures the inventon' every' 5 years, and USDA's National Agriculture Statistics Service uses different techniques to measures it four times each year. A second wav to show herd size is to list the number of animals marketed annually. When the animal's life evele is less than a vear, the numbers are larger. In each year recently, using this measure, about 100 million swine and about 7.5 billion broilers were marketed.
5 See: U.S. General Accounting Office. Animal Agriculture: Information on Waste Management and Water Quality Issues. GAO/RCED-95-2OOBR. June 1995. This GAO report contains a series of maps and brief narratives which show changes in the top 10 producing states, and the percent of the national inventory, for types of livestock in differing time spans between the mid 1970s and early 1990s.
6 Charles Mahtesian."Battling boss hog". Governing. Vol.9, April 1996:32.
7 USDA, Economic Research Service. "Livestock manure: foe or fertilizer?" Agricultural Outlook. June 1996: 31. Unless otherwise noted, the data on changes in the coin ponents of the livestock sector are taken from this overview.
8 In his testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 2, 1998, EPA Assistant Administrator Robert Perciasepe cited Census of Agriculture data showing that between 1982 and 1992 the average number of swine per swine farm increased by 578% in North Carolina, by 271% in Arkansas, and by 202% in Califomia and Virginia, while the number of swine farms in those states declined by 62%, 50%, 54%, and 71% respectively.
9 Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Minority Staff. Animal Waste Pollution in America: An Emerging National Prohiem. Dec.1997.
10 Both studies are cited in: American Planning Association. Zoning News. Oct. 1996: 1-4.
11 These data are from: Congressional Research Service. U.S. Agricultural Trade: Trends, Composition, Direction. and Policy. [by Charles Hanrahan and Mary Dunkley], March, 1998. CRS Report 98-253 ENR. 73 p.
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