Protecting Food. Empowering Whistleblowers.

Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Big Ag’s Water Pollution Costs Billions to Manage: Study

Food Integrity Campaign | March 13, 2012

Water contamination from factory farm waste and agricultural pesticides is a growing problem and usually lacks a media spotlight. This week, however, two separate studies illustrating how big of a problem we face received decent attention.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report paints a bleak picture of the billions of dollars spent around the globe cleaning up after Big Ag’s mess.

Bloomberg reports:

Costs from agricultural pollution include money spent treating water to remove nitrates, phosphates and pesticide chemicals as well as paying farmers to store manure safely and block contamination from reaching waterways, according to the study. Environmental contamination such as algal blooms also adds to the bill.

In Australia, the cost of algal blooms may be as high as $155 million while the price of eutrophication of surface and coast waters in France could reach as much as $1.4 billion, according to the study. Freshwater eutrophication costs are estimated at $2.2 billion in the U.S. and $2 billion for pesticide contamination of groundwater.

Do you need any more incentive to avoid water contamination than that? Besides the threat to drinking water, public health and aquatic populations, of course.

What’s frustrating is the lack of data available that enables the agriculture industry to prevent worldwide researchers from getting a complete picture of farm pollution (all the more reason to support whistleblowers who can alert to the problem when it happens). It’s difficult to draw direct connections to the source of chemicals in local water supplies, with industry groups claiming they aren’t solely responsible.

According to a University of California Davis study, though, 96 percent of nitrate contamination found in the groundwater of California’s farming communities comes from agriculture.

On top of a long list of health risks associated with nitrate-tainted drinking water (including skin rashes, hair loss, and birth defects), the researchers “project that utilities and citizens in the two [farming] regions will pay $20 million to $36 million per year for water treatment and alternative supplies.”

That’s a high price to pay (literally) for Big Ag’s money-making practices, which include crowding thousands of animals in a single facility, resulting in too much manure to handle properly.

As Community Water Center spokeswoman Laurel Firestone told the Associated Press, “this contamination has been out of sight, out of mind for too long.”

The disturbing fact has been that not even the government agencies in charge of regulating factory farms have a comprehensive inventory of these facilities, let alone their impact on the surrounding communities. The EPA plans to issue a final rule in July 2012 that would require CAFOs to report specific data to the agency, including type and capacity of manure storage, whether the facility sprays animal waste onto farm fields as fertilizer, whether it implements a waste management plan, etc.

Regulators should have been collecting this data long before now. But it seems as though we’re lucky to even see this rule, which is part of a settlement agreement the EPA reached with the Waterkeeper Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club in 2010, according to Bloomberg’s Bureau of National Affairs.

It’s time farm operations were finally held accountable for their harmful practices, and not dependent on local communities to pay for the mess they’ve made.


Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign.