August 8, 2014

Michigan Agriculture Contributes to Toledo's Water Woes

By Gail Philbin, Assistant Director, Michigan Chapter

Toledo’s recent bout with poisoned drinking water should serve as a huge wake-up call to Michigan to take seriously the link between factory farming, water pollution and public health.

The story of how dangerous levels of a toxin ended up in the water supply of Ohio’s fourth-largest city is in large part the story of how we grow our food today and who decides what are considered good farming practices. The impetus for Toledo’s weekend water ban was microcystin, a toxin experts say can cause diarrhea, vomiting or abnormal liver function that probably formed in a recent algae bloom in Lake Erie. The soupy, pea-green growth in one of our Great Lakes is an increasingly common occurrence fed by phosphorus run-off from southern Michigan and northwestern Ohio fields applied with commercial fertilizer or factory farm waste.

Why all the fertilizer and animal waste in our water? Because we eat lots of meat, dairy, poultry and eggs. The United States is the largest producer of corn in the world.  Eighty percent of what we grow is consumed not by people but by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry and fish production, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Vast monocultures of corn require large amounts of fertilizer to grow.  

We also like cheap food and most of us buy products that come from industrial-scale, concentrated livestock facilities, many of which have been constructed in the last decade in western Lake Erie watersheds that include southern Michigan. Such operations are favored by federal Farm Bill subsidies that keep their product prices artificially low. This taxpayer-funded support often goes to help construct manure lagoons and other systems for handling the huge amount of waste factory farms generate. Even so, it can end up polluting nearby waterways, as shown in the Less=More sustainable agriculture coalition’s 2013 report about subsidies and factory farm pollution, Restoring the Balance to Michigan’s Farming Landscape. The current subsidy system rewards polluters, giving an unfair advantage over the kind of healthy, sustainable livestock farms that more Michigan consumers seek to support at farmers markets and other local outlets.

Both monoculture crop farms and industrial livestock operations populate the landscape of the two main watersheds affecting Lake Erie, and it’s not clear how much of each is involved in the Toledo algae bloom. However, the role of the region's new livestock producers’ waste, much of it liquefied manure, and field runoff from the largest operations has scarcely been quantified up until now. John Klein, president of the citizen group Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, calculates that just the dairy and beef factory farms in the headwaters of the Maumee River and Raisin River, watersheds that impact western Lake Erie, annually generate about six million pounds of phosphorus. 

Last spring, a diverse coalition of Great Lakes groups predicted the kind of threat Toledo just experienced when it called on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to end the application of manure on frozen or snow-covered ground as an allowable practice of permitted Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The coalition cautioned that when snow melts or ground thaws, this common practice can result in runoff of phosphorus-loaded waste that ends up in Lake Erie. Reports by the International Joint Commission in February and the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force in 2013 also advocate prohibiting this practice.

Toledo’s recent nightmare should send an alarm to all state agencies with oversight of modern agricultural operations about the connection between the highest-risk factory farming practices, water pollution and public health. The Michigan Natural Resources Conservation Service, a state-based agency of the US Department of Agriculture that allocates Farm Bill conservation subsidies, must reassess the practices it prioritizes with taxpayer money and stop supporting polluting factory farms. The MDEQ, which is still in the process of reviewing its general permit for CAFO operators, need wait no further to ban winter manure application. And the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Resource Development should immediately follow suit and keep winter manure application out of the best management practices in its voluntary Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program. 

We must get serious about how we raise our food. We have healthy, sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture, but we can't replace the Great Lakes.