Surf or Turf?

There is a cow for every seven people in Washington State and they are killing our salmon.

Although animal agriculture is a major contributor to the degradation of Washington State’s Puget Sound ecosystem. While the proposed solutions address dealing with its consequences, there has been no attempt to tackle the problem at source by reducing the number of cows.

Towards the end of 2021, in my role as a member of several Washington State and Island County salmon and ecosystem recovery committees, I was asked to review the strategies for recovery that formed part of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Action Agenda. The Puget Sound Partnership is the state agency leading the effort to restore Puget Sound, primarily by directing grant funding from the EPA’s National Estuary Program. I noticed that fifteen of the twenty-six strategies – over half – dealt directly or indirectly with the consequences of animal agriculture.

The Sumas-Blaine Aquifer is one of the most severely contaminated aquifers in Washington

The most obvious of these consequences is the pollution caused by manure from large dairies and CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations. Manure from these operations causes fecal contamination of rivers. Ammonia from the urine component harms air quality; as it sinks into the ground it oxidizes to nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, and then to nitrate. This nitrate has led to the Sumas-Blaine aquifer in Whatcom County, a drinking water source for thousands of residents, being identified as one of the most severely contaminated aquifers in Washington state. The nitrate eventually ends up in Puget Sound where it contributes to algal blooms and lowered dissolved oxygen which are harmful to fish and other aquatic animals. Other contaminants, such as antibiotics, from cow manure and urine occur alongside nitrate.

I spoke to Andrea Rodgers, a lawyer who wrote a white paper for the Western Environmental Law Center making the case that Washington State relies too heavily on voluntary approaches to tackle pollution and stops short of regulation. She told me that where regulation exists, it is underused or undermined.

Armed with this information, I researched regulatory action against CAFOs and dairies. I noticed that the fines issued were paltry, amounting to no more than a slap on the wrist. One such case was Snydar Farm in Whatcom County along the Nooksack river, reported in Crosscut.

Doug Allen, Manager of Washington State’s Department of Ecology’s Bellingham office, managed the Snydar case. He told me that when Ecology attempted to crack down on pollution from dairies, the legislature moved responsibility for those to the Department of Agriculture, leaving him with beef cattle farms. He explained that inspecting those is a challenge as the legislature will not permanently fund his inspectors. He must apply for grant funding for them every two years. Consequently, turnover is high, and his inspectors cannot build institutional knowledge.

The major occupant of this land is cows

Pollution from dairies and CAFOs is just one example of how animal agriculture is damaging the Puget Sound and the health of its residents.

Dairy and beef production is also a major contributor to climate change. In addition to the nitrous oxide and methane emitted by the animals and their manure, there is the carbon dioxide contributed by farm operations and because of land use change. When animal feed crops or pasture replace forests and wetlands and cattle grazing degrades range lands, the land loses its ability to function as a carbon sink. Rangeland, pasture, and land used to grow animal feed together account for 41% of the land area of the contiguous 48 states. The major occupant of this land is cows. In contrast, the land area used to grow crops that we eat is just a tenth of that.

Loss of wetlands and riparian cover also directly impacts salmon by reducing habitat and increasing water temperature.

Withdrawal of water to irrigate feed crops causes aquifers to sink and instream flow for salmon to decrease. Fertilizers and pesticides applied to these crops are another source of harmful runoff. Pesticide use has decimated insect populations needed to pollinate crops that we eat.

The conditions in which farm animals live are a breeding ground for zoonotic diseases

In addition to the consequences of pollution and climate change, animal agriculture impacts human health directly.

Widespread use of antibiotics has led to resistance in bacteria that infect humans. The crowded conditions in which farm animals live are a breeding ground for zoonotic diseases such as mad cow disease, coronavirus, and most recently bird flu, which in the US alone has led to the killing of thirty-seven million poultry birds and at least one human case.

The World Health Organization has recently classified red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen. Studies have implicated casein, the protein in milk, as a carcinogen, while a majority of the non-white population in the US is lactose intolerant.

The political obstacles to reducing our reliance on beef and dairy are daunting.

All this, though, is a discussion about how best to mitigate the manure once it has already happened. Despite the overwhelming evidence that reducing the number of cows is a better way to reduce their impact and that doing so is essential to meeting Puget Sound recovery and climate change goals, no one is talking about it.

The political obstacles to reducing our reliance on beef and dairy are daunting.

At the federal level, the US Department of Agriculture has a duty to promote US agriculture, yet that agency, rather than the Department of Health and Humans Services, oversees dietary guidelines. No surprise then that the latest iteration, MyPlate, includes dairy as a food group. The USDA subsidizes animal agriculture and runs the food stamp program. That a burger costs less than an apple is not a bug, it’s a feature.

While other countries such as the Netherlands and Northern Ireland have committed to reduce livestock numbers to combat pollution and meet climate change goals, the US beef industry emerged from Biden’s climate pledges “relatively unscathed”, and the USDA is promoting “low carbon” beef.

A bill to improve riparian habitat to benefit salmon failed to make it out of committee after intense lobbying from the agriculture community

The situation in Washington State is not much better.

Representative Debra Lekanoff is the only Native American woman currently serving in the Washington State legislature. Two major salmon rivers, the Nooksack and Skagit, run through her district. They also pass through farmland in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

Representative Lekanoff has sponsored two bills to help salmon. The first, a bill to improve riparian habitat to benefit salmon failed to make it out of committee after intense lobbying from the agricultural community.

A second bill to require salmon recovery to be included in city and county comprehensive plans likewise failed to pass out of the Washington State Senate Ways and Means Committee, brought down again in large part by animal agriculture interests. State Senator Ron Muzzall, whose legislative district abuts Debra Lekanoff’s in the Skagit Valley, sits on that committee. He is also a beef cattle farmer and voted against the bill. Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen sits on the Puget Sound Partnership’s Ecosystem Coordination Board. He is also a dairy farmer and, accompanied by a representative from the Washington State Dairy Federation, testified against the bill.

Foxes guarding the henhouse

Out of frustration at the lack of progress, some environmentalists are choosing to step outside the system of grant funded projects and consultative committees. Andrea Rodgers now works for Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit public interest law firm, working to help secure young people’s rights to a safe climate.

It is abundantly clear that we need to reduce our reliance on animal agriculture if we are to recover Puget Sound. With foxes guarding the henhouse at the state and federal level it is equally clear that the current system of state agency guided federal grant funding is not going to get us there.

It is up to us to decide if we want a healthy Puget Sound or CAFOs. Salmon or beef? Surf or turf?