Modern farming activities are no longer limited to small, family-owned operation.
Modern farming activities are no longer limited to small, family-owned operations. Farming has become a huge and lucrative factory farm industry, producing immense volumes of contaminated animal waste that often contains residue of growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals, as well as bacteria and other coliforms.
Disposal of this waste is a major problem. It's frequently mixed with water and sprayed on fields, where it trickles into streams and groundwater. Or it's gathered into huge "manure lagoons" which filter their contents into the ground, contaminating the groundwater. Sometimes manure lagoons burst, as in North Carolina in 1995. Over 10 million fish were killed and 145,600 hectares of coastal wetlands were closed to shell-fishing.
Recently in Prince Edward Island, dying fish and contaminated marine-life were blamed on the agricultural practice of chemically spraying the lucrative potato crop with five different types of pesticides. These chemicals eventually found their way into the sea and other water sources.
In London, ON., a study found that an average two per cent of liquid manure sprayed on lands adjacent to the farms flowed directly into local streams (80 gallons of runoff for every acre sprayed). The owner of a giant pig farm near Napanee, Ont., was charged in 1999 with 11 counts of violating the Fisheries Act when manure-laden effluent was pumped off the farm into the Bay of Quinte. It killed the fish.
Even smaller operations can pose a threat to water supplies. Grazing cattle are often allowed to range near bodies of water and ditches are dug to carry the effluent into nearby lakes and rivers. In the summer of 1996 this practice caused over 10,000 residents of Kelowna and Cranbrook, BC to become ill when local drinking water supplies were contaminated with the Cryptosporidium parasite.
Farm Runoff Kills
Factory farms are sprouting up all across Canada and they are growing in size, yet the laws governing the agricultural industry have not changed to reflect this new reality. From the Globe and Mail, a week after Walkerton:
"Ontario's so-called right-to-farm laws make it very hard for folks ...to make a fuss. Those laws were passed to protect family farmers from city slickers or anyone else who complains about odour, dust or other noxious animal byproducts. The laws were not designed for the modern hog factory. Meantime, the province's Environment Ministry has been gutted. And federal environment cops can only intervene if farm runoff starts killing fish."
Cows, particularly calves, are capable of shedding billions of Cryptosporidium parasites daily; it only takes 10 of them to make a person sick. The E. coli that caused the deaths of at least seven people in Walkerton, also blamed on cows, is even more deadly; only tiny amounts of the bacteria will cause illness and possible death.
A single cow produces 22 times more waste than a person does. Pigs fattened for pork also generate large amounts. A pig farm with 3,600 animals produces as much excrement as a city of 15,000 residents, according to a report by the Washington, DC-based Natural Defense Council. Chicken waste may contain Campylobacter bacteria, the most common cause of gastrointestinal illness acquired through food in the United States.
This new threat to human health is a super-bug resistant to Fluoroquinolone, a type of antibiotic fed to chickens. Fluoroquinolones were an essential treatment for food-borne disease, but by 1998 many patients weren't responding to these antibiotics.
A small ray of hope is beginning to shine, however. Rising public concern about the health hazards of animal waste disposal has prompted a group of hog producers in Quebec to announce they will build an animal waste treatment plant. In Alberta a new dry system of treating manure from these factory farms introduced by Pure Lean Inc sounds promising. The manure gets into sawdust which is gathered up, mixed with vegetation and other composting materials. It's allowed to compost within the confines of the barn itself and sold as fertilizer. This method eliminates most of the odour from the factory and no manure touches the ground, thereby protecting the water sources.
This is our water. It belongs to us and we are all in danger. It is high time that updated laws are put in place to strictly enforce and govern the new factory farm reality.
How Bacteria Gets from Farm to Tap
The deadly strain of E. coli in Walkerton's drinking water is speculated to have been sloshed into the water supply by an unusually heavy rain which saturated a nearby livestock operation, carrying contaminated runoff into the town's wells. Cryptosporidium in the water supply of North Battleford, Sask., has also surfaced in Collingwood and Kitchener, Ont., as well as the British Columbia communities of Cranbrook and Kelowna. According to Health Canada, cattle seem to be the primary source of the parasite Cryptosporidium, although they have been found in humans and other animals. Drinking water sources become contaminated when feces containing the parasites are deposited or flushed into water.
Unfortunately, micro-organisms like E. coli, Giardia (beaver fever) and Cryptosporidium are much more prevalent in our environment than we would like to think. They are carried in the feces of cattle, hogs and other warm-blooded animals by the billions and are easily transported to surface water by direct drainage, rainfalls or snow-melt.