Indie Film “A River of Waste” Issues Urgent Call to “Vote with Our Ballots as Well as Our Forks”

Don McCorkell, Director of A River of Waste. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

Don McCorkell, Director of A River of Waste. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

“Only after the last tree is cut down, the last of the water poisoned, the last animal destroyed… Only then will you realize you cannot eat money.” — Cree Indian Prophecy

So begins the documentary film A River of Waste, setting the stage for a discussion of how agriculture in the U.S. — and indeed, much of the world — has left behind the family farm and turned into profits-at-any-cost Big Ag. And there are costs — costs to the animals kept in filth and confinement; costs to the environment in air, soil, and water pollution; and costs to the health and well-being of people.

This excellent indie film presents a story that has been carefully researched and seamlessly assembled to show consumers just how dangerous CAFOs are. But it doesn’t stop there; it presents solutions in the form of regulations and practices that are common in the European Union.

Yes, there are solutions, but we will not see them implemented in the U.S. if we are not willing to take a stand. Like Upton Sinclair, whose book, The Jungle, revealed the horrors of the Chicago meat-packing industry and changed the way meat was processed, filmmaker Don McCorkell uses A River of Waste to reveal an insider’s view of CAFOs and spur us to action to protect our environment and our very lives.

Drive along any country road in an agricultural state such as Iowa, where I live, and you’ll be hard pressed to find cattle grazing in open fields. There are some, but they are the exception, not the rule. The landscape that once hosted herds of beef and dairy cattle, swine, and poultry is all but lifeless except for crops. Instead, in all directions, you can find long, often windowless enclosures that house the animals — out of sight and, most likely, out of mind for consumers.

If you could enter these secretive, often guarded, rarely photographed interiors, you would find a process that efficiently grows meat animals by the thousands in a single building. Beef cattle and pigs eat high-protein diets laced with growth hormones that cause them to quickly add lean meat. Because it’s illegal to give growth hormones to chickens, many CAFO farmers add arsenic to their feed for the same effect. Many meat animals gain so much weight so fast that their legs cannot support them. And most are housed in spaces too small for them even to turn around as they grow to adulthood.

CAFO-housed animals raised for human consumption are also regularly dosed with sub-therapeutic amounts of antibiotics. Why antibiotics? To control diseases that are created by forcing them to live in, on top of, or too close to, their own excrement and each other.

All That Waste and Nowhere to Go

These chemicals — the hormones, antibiotics, and the arsenic — pass from the animals’ bodies into their feces. The feces — more politely called manure when discussing agriculture produced by farm animals is a prized commodity. Farmers spread it on their fields to fertilize their crops, or they sell it to other farmers. When animals roam freely in grassland and leave their feces behind as fertilizer, it’s an invaluable asset and improves the soil. It can even be an asset when collected in large volume and spread or knifed into the soil in an appropriate density on cropland. But in the excessive quantities produced in CAFOs, where the excrement from tens of thousands of animals collects in an enclosed location, farmers often have more manure than they have land to spread it on. If you’re a farmer, and you have thousands of gallons or hundreds of tons of waste and nowhere to dump it, what do you do?

Where human waste is highly regulated and generally processed in sewage treatment facilities, hundreds of millions of gallons of animal waste are dumped onto or drilled into the soil as fertilizer each year. When too much manure is spread on a field or when manure is spread on frozen ground, it washes into rivers and streams. But this isn’t just manure as nature produces it. Remember those hormones in the feed and the antibiotic injections and the arsenic? Sounds like a hazardous waste product to me.

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson talks about the lawsuit he filed against CAFOs. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre Films

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson talks about the lawsuit he filed against CAFOs. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre Films

In the film, we learn from Attorney General Drew Edmonton that a bill in Congress today essentially says, “No matter what they’re mixed with, and no matter what’s in them, no matter what may have been added to the feed that would then come out the other end — under no circumstances and regardless of the amount, would animal wastes be considered hazardous.

“Congress does some pretty stupid things now and again,” he goes on to say, “but this would be one of the stupidest they’ve ever done. Chemicals, processes, compounds are either hazardous or they’re not. If they are hazardous, you can legislate that word away, but you can’t legislate away the hazard. One of the constituents in poultry waste is arsenic. It would be like Congress saying, ‘Arsenic is not dangerous. Help yourself!’ ”

Although it varies due to weather conditions at the time the manure is spread, an average 20 percent of the fecal matter from CAFOs ends up in our waterways, according to the film. We unwittingly swim in it, fish in it, and water ski in it. We drink from the rivers that carry it. It causes fish and wildlife kills. And it creates algae blooms with devastating effects.

In A River of Waste, University of Tulsa Professor of Geosciences J. Berton Fisher, Ph.D. speaks aloud as he flies over Oklahoma in a helicopter. Looking down at the Illinois River striped with large areas of gross-looking slime, he interrupts himself in mid thought, crying out, “Holy sh*t! Holy sh*t! Look at the Cladophera in the river bottom…!”

As we continue to ride along in the helicopter with Fisher, we see lakes and rivers clogged with this blue-green algae to the point that, from the air, these waterways could easily pass for oddly colored grassy meadows. The algae floats on the surface of the water, where it grows until it dies, sinking to the bottom and depleting the oxygen in the water as it decays. When a fish enters this de-oxygenated water, it dies within minutes, as fast as if it were thrown onto land.

Overuse of Antibiotics

But let’s get back to the antibiotics for a moment. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, we learn in the film, “23 million pounds of antibiotics per year are used in veterinary practice, most of it in sub-therapeutic doses added to animal feed for growth enhancement.”

Dr. Michael Greger, Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States, says, “The vast majority of antibiotics produced in this country don’t go to people. It’s funneled into animal agriculture, and not to treat sick animals or even to necessarily prevent sickness, but is used as a growth promotant.”

But how could low levels of antibiotics be so important to growth? We don’t give human children antibiotics to help them grow big and strong. In fact, a University of Arkansas research study declared, “If we raised our own children the way we raise chickens, a two-and-a-half year old child would weigh 349 pounds,” McCorkell tells us.

If we don’t use growth hormones on our own children, why would we do so for the animals we feed to our children?

Michael Greger of the Humane Society talks about antibiotics and meat production. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

Michael Greger of the Humane Society talks about antibiotics and meat production. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

Greger adds, “The environment that most animals are produced in in the United States is so filthy, their immune system is so embattled by pathogens, that it takes so much metabolic energy — growth energy — to fight off all these bugs, that their growth suffers.

“So, if you give them antibiotics to wipe out the bugs, you put it in the water supply, on a mass level in these chicken sheds, then you just wash these chickens internally, externally with antibiotics. Then their body no longer has to fight off so many bugs, because it’s just such an unhygienic environment that they actually have a growth spurt…

“It saves money, but again, at what cost? … We are now facing a future in which a simple scrape can turn into a mortal wound, where simple surgeries can be anything but simple. We are running out of an arsenal of antibiotics. We cannot produce, invent antibiotics fast enough to combat these bacteria that are multiplying and reproducing much faster than our ability to fight infections…. The first-line drugs no longer work anymore. Often we have to jump immediately to the more expensive, more-side-effects drugs, because we’re running out of options.”

If nothing else about this film impresses the viewer, this should. “Put it this way,” a scientist from Plains Justice advocacy group told environmentalists at a meeting last night, “If you get sick with something that antibiotics can’t treat, you’re done.” As in dead. And all in the name of bigger, fatter meat animals and ever higher profits.

There’s more cheery news. Dr. Robert Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells us that there’s concern about the effects of the growth hormones used on the animals being “endocrine disruptors” in people. Johns Hopkins and other institutions are researching to find how the endocrine disruptors “contribute to breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and so forth.” He declares, “Growth promoters have no place in the human food supply.” But unless you buy organic meat or don’t eat meat at all, you’re eating them.

Taking Action

That takes us back to the question of less-expensive meat “at what cost?”

Join us if you can at a showing of the film on October 11 at 2:00 at the Iowa City Public Library. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

Join us, if you can, at a showing of the film on October 11 at 2:00 at the Iowa City Public Library. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

Retired Oklahoma Senator Paul Muegge, recipient of the John F. Kennedy Award, declares, “What we’re doing in agriculture today is not sustainable. This thing is going to break down at some point in time.”

“The public health effects are so severe that the American Public Health Association has called for a moratorium on new operations,” McCorkell says. By “public health” effects, he points to cancer deaths of children and adolescents living near poultry CAFOs in Arkansas, to families that can’t tolerate the bird waste being spread on farmland in South Carolina and Oklahoma and other states, and to elevated E. coli in poultry farm workers and their families. And who’s to say we won’t be poisoning our children for generations to come?

There are solutions, as I mentioned earlier. European Union nations have been leaders in finding them. A professor in Germany tells us that there’s strict limit on the number of animals per hectare, for example. Dense factory farming such as we see in the film is prohibited. Farmers avoid contaminating their neighbors’ homes and fields by using setbacks, broad strips of land that serve as a buffer against the accidental spread of manure and odor to neighboring property. And they’ve outlawed the addition of arsenic to poultry feed.

How can we get U.S. producers to adhere to standards like these?

If you believe that CAFOs are the wrong way to raise food, “vote with your fork,” McCorkell, a 17-year veteran of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, urges. Find those farmers who are sustainably raising their animals, and buy from them. Then speak up. Tell your legislators that CAFO pollution is unacceptable.

A River of Waste is packed with information that we all should know whether or not we are consumers of meat. As people whose lives and livelihoods are affected by water and air pollution, and contaminated soil, we have both a right and a responsibility to learn what is happening around us. Then, we must act. Just as publication of The Jungle spurred Congress to enact laws to protect both workers and consumers against dangerous meat packing practices, Congress can be made to legislate safer standards for raising food animals. But our Senators and Representatives cannot be expected to take that stand alone. The loudest voice they hear now is the voice of Big Ag. We, their constituents, the voters who determine whether they remain in office, must make it clear that we support sustainable, healthy food production and that we hold them accountable.

As McCorkell reminds viewers in the closing moments of the film, “We need to vote with our ballots as well as our forks.… Democracy can work, but it is not a spectator sport.”

“Sometimes,” McCorkell cautions, “the greatest threats don’t come from foreign terrorists. Sometimes they come from within.”

NOTE: Iowa City Environmental Advocates is sponsoring a showing of A River of Waste at the Iowa City Public Library on October 11, 2009 at 2:00 PM. A panel discussion will follow the 90-minute film. Co-sponsors include members of the RiverCry group and Blue Planet Green Living. Contact for more information. If you are unable to attend a public showing, you can purchase a copy on the web from Cinema Libre for USD $19.95.

Julia Wasson
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)