Photo: The growth of toxic algae explodes worldwide with the help of growing volumes of human and animal waste.
Last October, just before the provincial government relaxed regulations to allow for many more hogs to be produced in this province, George Matheson, Chair of the industry group, “Manitoba Pork,” testified before a legislative committee.
In an astonishing display of corporate hype, Matheson seemed to think he could, with a single statement, obliterate years of solid scientific research, conducted in his own province.
“Hog manure is not getting into our rivers and lakes,” he declared. “The vast majority…about 85 per cent, is injected into the soil of farmland or immediately incorporated into the soil. This method of application essentially stops manure from running off the land. I cannot overemphasize this point. This means manure does not get into rivers and lakes. In fact, it is illegal for manure to leave a field.”
In her long career with the University of Winnipeg’s biology department, Dr. Eva Pip has come to a dramatically different conclusion. After visiting more than 400 sites in Manitoba and publishing a series of meticulous, detailed studies, the veteran water quality expert has found, “The two land use categories with the highest nitrate concentrations bleeding into adjacent surface waters were urban sewage and livestock/poultry operations.”
Dr. Eva Pip taught biology at the U of W for
more than 50 years before retiring in 2016.
She has published almost 100 peer-reviewed
articles in her career. More than 800 scientists
in serious academic circles around the world
have cited her work, as a building block for their own.
Nitrates act as nutrients which promote the rapid growth of harmful and often poisonous algae. As Dr. Pip explains, “These mar beaches, overgrow submerged surfaces, clog filters and fishing nets, and foul drinking water with objectionable tastes, odours and toxins. Local fish and invertebrate kills have occurred both in summer and under winter ice.”
Many big livestock operations, including hog “mega-barns,” have been operating in southern Manitoba for years. This doesn’t make sense to Dr. Pip. “Our provincial government was irresponsibly allowing barns where periodic flooding was very likely, even certain. Since floodwaters flow into Lake Winnipeg, and also to Lake Manitoba via the Portage Diversion, this means that waste affects a very large area, not just the immediately adjacent waters.” Epic flooding in the Red River Valley in 1997 washed a host of human-related contaminants into those lakes, including waste from hog lagoons.
A study Dr. Pip supervised in 2006, confirmed that three substances harmful to water quality “increased significantly during flooding.” They were, dissolved solids and different forms of the two main nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous. And human and animal waste were also “major factors” directly affecting water quality near the shore at 90 sites she surveyed along the southern half of Lake Winnipeg. Communities of mollusks (snails and native freshwater mussels), considered important indicators of environmental health, were dwindling, and many are endangered. She recommended another look be taken at management policies affecting the lake, in order to “reduce further habitat decline.”
In 2012, she published another study showing even more clearly, just how baseless Matheson’s testimony was. For an entire ice-free season, she and one of her students took water samples both upstream and downstream of a small hog and poultry operation in southeastern Manitoba. The farm, complete with waste lagoons and fields where the waste was sprayed, was located between the Brokenhead River and one of its tributaries, Hazel Creek. The study detected significantly higher levels of several substances harmful to water quality in the downstream samples, compared to upstream. These included phosphorous, some nitrogen, solids and fecal coliform bacteria, which increased when it rained. “ The study suggested that environmental loading of livestock waste adversely altered natural stream water quality.” And it called for producers to spread manure “during drier weather conditions, to minimize the large-scale escape events.”
“Our study demonstrated unequivocally," explains Dr. Pip, "that manure was getting into those waterways from the spread fields after the manure had been spread, and not just small amounts either.”
The Brokenhead River flows into Lake Winnipeg, the subject of another study published in 2012. Entitled, “The rapid eutrophication of Lake Winnipeg,” it was conducted by a team of researchers headed by another water quality expert, Dr. David Schindler of the University of Alberta. It concluded that poisonous blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) “have nearly doubled in size in that lake since the mid 1990s,” thanks to rapid increases in phosphorous levels."
David Schindler is a Rhodes scholar and
internationally celebrated scientist, with
a Ph.D in ecology. He co-authored the
book, “The Algal Bowl: Overfertilization
of the World’s Freshwaters and Estuaries.”
This, in turn is due to “rapidly increased livestock production and use of synthetic fertilizer in the Red River Valley, with smaller contributions…from the city of Winnipeg and other human development in the Red and Winnipeg river basins. Most scientists agree, increasing inputs of phosphorous and nitrogen, abundant in human sewage, the excrement of livestock and synthetic fertilizers applied to agricultural land (a process called eutrophication), are the earth’s most widespread water quality problem. They cause harmful algal blooms, fish kills and many related problems both in fresh waters and in coastal seas that are adjacent to areas with large human populations.”
But, could human health be at risk here, too?
Further research by Dr. Pip less than four years ago, shows that indeed, it could be. It found a dangerous neurotoxin called BMAA at three places near the shore of Lake Winnipeg’s south basin. Levels of it were found to increase significantly after heavy “blooms” of the blue-green algae and when solids were suspended in the water. BMAA is found worldwide, wherever the algae are found. It has been linked to human ailments including Parkinson’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). It has also been found in the hair and brain tissue of Canadian Alzheimer’s patients.
There are several troubling pathways humans could be exposed to this toxin. These include consuming the milk or meat of livestock or waterfowl who’ve been exposed to tainted water in dugouts or wetlands, or even from bathing in it. Of the three locations studied, the highest levels were found at Patricia Beach, a popular spot for bathers.
As bad as they sound, BMAA toxins are not the end of the story, as Dr. Pip explains. “We found other more important algal toxins in Lake Winnipeg (microcystins, anatoxins) that are much more immediate and potent, and these should be mentioned. We found that microcystins were related to phosphorus and nitrogen in the water. They can be inhaled, absorbed through skin, or ingested.
They can be lethal to animals, and make people sick. Many communities as well as cottagers draw their drinking water from the lake.” Coliform bacteria (such as E coli) were also associated with phosphorus levels.
A dog swims in a toxic
soup of blue-green algae.
Despite all this, Premier Brian Pallister, like the industry, seems more than willing to simply write off all those years of collective scientific wisdom. When announcing last spring his government would relax important environmental regulations so thousands more hogs could be produced in Manitoba, he told reporters,“There’s no compelling evidence that any of these changes will put water at risk."
Lake Winnipeg. Photo credit.
Cdn. Space Agency.
Meanwhile, Lake Winnipeg, the world's 10th largest freshwater lake, gets increasingly polluted with algal blooms that can be seen from space. And, a report commissioned by the Government of Manitoba in 2011 concluded that phosphorous levels in the lake were “three times higher than they were in Lake Erie when that lake was described as dead!”
What about water quantity?
Quite apart from the role big hog operations play in impacting water quality, is the question of usage - the volumes needed to water the livestock and clean the barns. The amounts are staggering. Figures on volumes already being consumed are hard to come by. But we are already getting a taste of what an expanded industry will look like. Applications are now pouring in for new barns and permission to expanded existing ones. The big pork processing company, HyLife alone, has applied to build no less than 16 big barns, housing some 50,000 hogs in the RM of Killarney, in the southwest. The company estimates all those barns, together, will require something like 48m imperial gallons, or 218m litres of groundwater per year! The hogs will produce well over 31m gallons of slurry, to be stored in several new earthen lagoons the company proposes to dig. The barns are to be located in the Pembina River watershed and built on land which is currently in crop production.
What about the stink?
But are the threats being posed by the Pallister government's crusade to expand the hog industry, confined to our waterways only? What about the stench produced by massive quantities of hog manure? The industry claims, expansion will do little to worsen that problem.
Yet odours from intensive livestock operations nationwide, have been recognized as a problem in Canada for well over 20 years. In its “Handbook on Health Impacts,” (2004), Health Canada notes, “Among all the animal production sectors, hog farming, given its constant growth since the 1970s and its expansion in many rural and even near-urban areas, is often publicly perceived as one of the most polluting agricultural activities. The number of complaints about odours from animal production operations has increased sharply since the 1970s, mainly because of the transition from solid (manure) to liquid (slurry) waste management. As a result, in 1995, odours from buildings and slurry storage facilities were 5.2 times stronger than they were in 1961; and odours from spreading activities were 8.2 times stronger.”
But hog barn odours can be more than just a nuisance. The Handbook warns that gases including ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and methane can not only irritate the eyes and upper respiratory tract, they can, in high enough concentrations, be lethal. “Half of all cases of severe manure gas poisoning are fatal,” it states. “And a few farm workers in Canada die from such poisoning each year,” usually while cleaning out confined spaces such as manure gutters below the barns.
There is, however, anecdotal evidence that modern technology may be offering some relief. That technology allows farmers to inject the slurry into the soil when fertilizing their fields, rather than spraying it on from above.
In the words of one informed source, Eric Rempel, "The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. It's quite possible to drive past a field where manure is being injected, and not be aware of it. Of course there is some odour, but with skillful operators, it is much reduced. On the other hand, where the liquid manure is being sprayed, the odour is powerful." While he believes that injection is now the dominant method of application, there are reasons it cannot be used everywhere. Many barns are located on marginal land, usually reserved for pasture or hay crops. In those cases, spraying is preferred because injection would "negatively affect" those fields. And injection does not work when the ground is muddy, either.
He believes the large, industrial farms actually do a better job of managing their waste than either smaller farmers or Hutterites, who operate large barns on several of their colonies in the province. And, Rempel adds, the push to continue spreading slurry onto farmland in winter, widely viewed as a harmful environmental practise, comes, not from the industrial farms, but small farmers. He once owned a Manitoba company which helped industrial pig farms manage their manure applications.
Meanwhile, claims by the Manitoba industry that it doesn't contribute much to climate change, either, do not seem to match evidence elsewhere. While the industrial livestock industry in the U.S. is much larger than ours, it's style of production (confining large numbers of animals in big buildings), is pretty much the same. Recent research by the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy (IATP) of Minnesota, finds that the biggest American meat and dairy operators, together, emit more greenhouse gases than any of the oil giants - Exxon, Shell or BP - do individually!
“One consequence, among many," IATP concludes,"is that livestock production now contributes nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, even more than the transportation sector. If production continues to grow as projected by the FAO, emissions will escalate to the point where industrial meat and dairy production alone will undercut our ability to keep temperatures from rising to an apocalyptic scenario. It’s now clear that the world cannot avoid climate catastrophe without addressing the staggering emissions from the largest meat and dairy transnational conglomerates.”
But, could our big slaughterhouses here at home also be contributing to global warming in a way that few of us may even think about - by the very way they kill their hogs? A consultants study describes how HyLife Foods of Neepawa, the country's largest pork processing plant, does it. They lower about seven pigs at a time into a pit filled with carbon dioxide (C02), where they suffocate in about three minutes. That asphyxiation system, along with a separate dry ice system, each use a 50 tonne steel tank. They're replenished by trucks twice a month. Environment and Climate Change Canada does not keep track of this C02. But, given that millions of hogs are apparently slaughtered in this province in this way each year (soon to be many more), perhaps they should! (C02 is the most common greenhouse gas contributing to our current climate crisis.)
Living with an “industry-friendly” media.
Last spring, the publisher of the weekly newspaper, the Neepawa Banner, Ken Waddell, wrote, “A hog produces about the same amount of manure as a human.” Waddell, a prominent Conservative, is a fierce promoter of both industrial hog production and the push by the Pallister government to expand it. (Neepawa is also home to HyLife, the biggest private employer in town.)
Since his flat statement came with a distinct odour attached, I decided to check it out. So I e-mailed Ming Z. Fan, Ph.D. He is a professor of nutritional ecology at the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. Here’s how Dr. Ming explains it. It takes a piglet about 5 or 6 months to grow from 2-3kg to a market-sized hog of about 110kg. (Roughly speaking, it would take a human - depending on the individual - about 20 years to reach full maturity!) So, in Dr. Ming’s words, “Simply because model lean pigs grow much faster and eat much more, they will produce much more manure than humans under a given period of time."
Waddell’s statement also ignores the fact that pigs now probably outnumber people in Manitoba, by more than six to one! A study prepared for the University of Manitoba shows that, about eight million hogs were being raised in the province in 2015! Yet Manitoba’s human population that year was only about 1.3 million.
And, according to Stats Canada, in the five years leading up to 2017, Manitoba experienced “the largest absolute increase in pigs” in the entire country.
South of the border, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has concluded, “Confined Animal Feeding Operations (known in Canada as ILOs) produce over 300 million tons of waste per year—twice the amount of waste produced by the human population of the U.S!”
So just how many more pigs and how much more manure will there be right here in Manitoba, once the government’s ambitious (some say reckless) plan to increase production, comes to pass? And is the American experience really one we want to emulate?
Surely all of this begs the question; just how big is big enough for the fragile eco-systems of any one province to bear?
Larry lives in Shoal Lake, Manitoba where he publishes www.PlanetInPeril.ca
Related: "In Hogs We Trust."
Part #1 Antibiotic overuse in Manitoba's hog industry.
Part #2 Government subsidies.
Part #3 The consequences of livestock diseases, worldwide and here at home.