CAFOs & Texas Water Pollution: An end to Agricultural Exceptionalism?

 Agricultural operations are the leading cause of water degradation in the United States. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), in particular, are some of the most egregious water polluters. CAFOs are industrial facilities that densely confine thousands of cattle, poultry, or hogs in long rows from birth until slaughter. The popular romantic image of a small family farm is no longer representative of our meat production. Ninety percent of our meat is produced in ten percent of animal feeding operations. The number of animals produced in the United States has increased since 1970, while the number of animal feeding operations has decreased. The country is producing such a surplus of meat that it is able to provide for an increasing global demand. Unfortunately, eating meat is a symbol of western prosperity marking a rise to the global middleclass. This incentivizes further consolidation and pollution. In Texas agricultural industry is deeply ingrained in socioeconomic history and meat consumption is an integral part of our cultural identity. The protections from environmental responsibility has made Texas an increasingly attractive place to open a CAFO.

Waste produced by CAFOs is typically collected into open lagoons or piles and it is more likely to end up in the state’s drinking water sources. CAFOs present several risks to water including: nitrogen contamination, phosphorous contamination, pathogenic bacteria, hormones, antibiotics, ammonia, habitat loss, and groundwater depletion. Many of Texas’s waters are unable to support aquatic life, fish consumption, and recreational use. By 1988, animal feeding operations had caused damage to at least 38 miles of Texas streams and rivers and over 23,700 acres of lakes. CAFOs in the panhandle are located above the Ogallala Aquifer, a significant water supply that is shared by several states. Studies have uncovered significant evidence linking aquifer contamination to cattle feedlots located above it.

Agricultural water pollution also causes significant risk to oceanic biodiversity. Waste runoff from CAFOs introduces a surplus of nitrogen into Texas’s surface water and subsequently the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf is home to a seven thousand square mile “dead zone” of hypoxia (low oxygen from excess levels of nitrogen) which cannot support most aquatic life.

Agricultural Exceptionalism is a term that is being used in an ongoing scholarly discussion about agricultural impunity from environmental regulation. The agricultural industry is exempt from many of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) provisions, largely due to powerful lobbying efforts. For example, permits are not required under the CWA for polluted agricultural stormwater discharge.

There are some, yet unsatisfactory, CAFO regulations in Texas. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the State Soil and Water Conservation Board (SSWCB) authorize and monitor permits concerning wastewater discharge. However, regulation oftentimes fails to protect the environment or human health. First, the agencies have streamlined the CAFO permitting process, meaning less scrutiny on the front end. Second, water quality monitoring is rare and enforcement of permitting requirements is lax. Third, CAFOs often “accidentally” discharge into water and are therefore not subject to enforcement penalties. In instances of illegal discharge, state is either slow or completely fails to respond.

Texas is the country’s largest livestock producers and the country’s largest producer of animal waste (nearly double the second largest state) so it is paramount that state regulation is strengthened. Unfortunately, many state legislators serve districts that have significant agricultural interests, making enhanced and ideally swift strengthening of water protection unlikely. More specifically and immediately, we could pressure state agencies to make changes. We could significantly reduce waste runoff by requiring synthetic liners for waste lagoons, we could create stricter initial CAFO permitting requirements, and we could maintain consistent monitoring. Many environmental groups are pushing for reform to federal laws. An ideal outcome would include expansion of the protections in federal statutes like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Water Drinking Act. Beyond legal remedies, consumers have the power to vote with their forks, meaning they can either reduce the amount of meat they eat, or at least refrain from buying from stores and restaurants that get their meat from CAFOs.

An economic argument can be made in favor of perpetuating agricultural exceptionalism. Meat production is a highly profitable industry, especially now that the United States has entered the global market. Texas benefits from being one of the country’s agricultural leaders. If we were to subject the state to more regulation, then CAFOs would likely open up elsewhere to make up for demand and the state economy would suffer as a result. Financial assessments, although more easy to quantify than other qualitative assessments, are largely favored in policy decisions. I argue that this is a limited approach, leaving aside essential normative concerns.

The public right to use and enjoyment of water should be valued above efficient and profitable animal production. Unlike other policy externalities, harm to the public health through water pollution should be a priority. Water is a human right and it is essential to life. Large profits for CAFOs should come with greater responsibility to mitigate environmental degradation. The Clean Water Act was a huge victory for environmentalists, it goals included making all U.S. waterways fishable and swimmable by 1983 and eliminating the discharge of pollutants into the nation’s waterways by 1985. However, in 1990 forty percent of the nation’s waterways assessed by states still did not meet goals for fishing, swimming, or both. In 2006, Environment Texas conducted a study that found that 62 percent of industrial facilities exceeded their CWA permit limits. Advocating for an end to agricultural exceptionalism is the final frontier of water protection.

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