Nutrient Imbalance-The Meat of the Problem

When the EPA distributed the attached EPA load map copy for the Chesapeake Bay last fall, it was apparent that there were two distinct areas of excess nutrient both nitrogen and phosphorous. One was what I would call the chicken corridor which extends from Lancaster PA to the tip of Delmarva where both nitrogen and phosphorous are shown on the chart in deep red and the other is the large area of Pennsylvania which appeared to be centered in a remote area at the headwaters of Penn’s Creek and which extends SW and NE up into the State of NY.

USGS does regular monitoring of the Delmarva Peninsula. Their studies show that 94% of Delmarva nitrogen pollution comes from chicken production, 59% from grain feed production, and 35% from CAFO chicken house manure. While the chicken corridor extends down the Eastern edge of the watershed it does broaden out to the West and includes part of the urban areas of Washington and Baltimore. This corridor continues down the East coast and includes the chicken and hog CAFO’s in all Coastal plain areas down to the Gulf of Mexico. The Pamlico Sound in NC is as polluted as Chesapeake Bay. Georgia and Alabama each produce double the number of chickens as Delmarva. These sparsely populated areas get little attention compared to the Chesapeake.

While the writer understood East Coast pollution the area of rural Pennsylvania was unfamiliar so I asked a friend of mine who lives in the area and has done extensive study to explain. His report is as follows:

“The poultry and hog industries are structured very much the same way (as Delmarva) where:The integrators own the animals and farmers own the risk, and at least some of the benefit, or else they wouldn’t do it.  Another party involved, however, are the lenders who loan money to the farmer to build the facilities based on the confidence they have in the cash flow from the contract.  Oddly enough — no big surprise really — the integrators often deem the facilities to be out-of-date and in need of repair/replacement, just as the mortgage runs out and the farmer actually owns the building outright . . . then he takes out another mortgage as a condition of renewing a contract (but you also see a lot of these outdated facilities sitting empty around the countryside).  The major integrator in this area is the Clemens Family Corporation, DBA Hatfield Quality Meats and Country View Family Farms.

The dairy industry is very different.  The “integrators” don’t actually own the animals . . . they don’t need to, because we don’t actually eat the animals except as a final byproduct. They own the milk, however, in the sense that many farms have limited options as to where they can ship their milk, a highly perishable product (reduces farmers’ market power).  There are production contracts being used, but every farmer is more or less beholden to the co-op that picks up their milk, and prices are often set in very complicated ways that farmers don’t totally understand. It’s the dairy industry that creates the demand for corn/alfalfa stripfarming that occurs, and most of that corn is processed for silage while still green. In contrast, not all but much of the grain used for poultry and hogs is shipped to the area from the Midwest, creating the basic imbalance that has disturbed the Chesapeake Watershed so greatly.  To keep things in balance, we should be shipping the manure back to the geographical areas where the grain (including especially soybeans too) were produced.  Instead, we ruin our watersheds with the excess manure, and farmers in the Midwest ruin theirs with the excess synthetic fertilizer needed to keep that grain growing (because they don’t have enough manure to maintain fertility). One option the EPA has is to simply say that nutrients shipped into the area must not exceed nutrients shipped out,. It’s an elegant, but very controversial idea . . . would likely end conventional agriculture in the Mid-Atlantic as we now know it”.

The late Lester Lanyon a soils scientist at Penn State University extensively studied nutrient imbalance both between individual farms and on a regional basis. A summary of his research can be found by clicking the above link to the Bay Journal archives.

So the big picture is that we have major geographic areas of nutrient imbalance as between the Midwest and rural Pennsylvania and we also have local imbalance as between the nutrient hot spots of each CAFO and close-by corn fields where too much manure is used and the majority of corn fields that use only chemical fertilizer. When animals were produced close to feed production the individual farmer tended to this important balance. Now there is no attention being given to the key issue of nutrient balance. Just another victim of the industrial revolution in food production. Based on this analysis it is fair to say that the Chesapeake Bay is polluted by meat and dairy production. Other posts and our references suggest that while these products are cheap  the quality and humane treatment has also been compromised by the  industrial CAFO production process.

Understanding nutrient imbalance is important but to understand the complete picture the cause of massive erosion must also be understood. We will be issuing several posts on that subject in the near future. Shipping the manure to the areas of grain production presents other issues because much of the manure has a phosphorus imbalance  and is laced with feed additives, antibiotics, arsenic and growth hormones which can contaminate drinking water. There may be other solutions but mandatory treatment of CAFO manure to produce clean organic fertilizer and energy, shipping that fertilizer to  fields that are organic deficient, plus most important, stop grain subsidies. These actions will undoubtedly increase the price of these products thus reducing consumption and increasing National Health (see reference #16). My opinion! Other considered opinions are invited.     Don Kerstetter

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