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The Price of Cheap Meat: A Lake Dies in Ohio

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Grand Lake St. Marys -- Ohio's largest inland body of water and a treasured recreational area -- is dying. And if you barbecued some supermarket pork over the holiday weekend, you helped contribute to this disaster, however indirectly.

The lake's 13,000 acres of water surrounded by parkland, cabins and campgrounds, is one of the leading summertime attractions in the area, which brings in some $216 million in tourist spending each year, $160 million directly from the lake, (not to mention 2,600 jobs). Now, many visitors are shunning the place like an oil-stained Alabama beach. Swimming and waterskiing are discouraged, and even boating might be a health risk.

The main problem is phosporous and other nutrients, mostly from farms, including the 15 or so animal factory farms in the lake's watershed, and nutrients from the megatons of fertilizer applied on taxpayer-subsidized corn and soybean fields. Those products then become cheap feed that keeps the factory farms humming, Big Box prices low, and summertime barbequers happy.

Factory farms, in addition to their insatiable demand for subsidized feed, also generate thousands of tons of animal waste each year, far more than the surrounding land can absorb. The manure -- in this part of Ohio, most factory farms are either pork, or "layer" (egg) operations -- is sometimes liquefied and sprayed from giant sprinklers that spew brownish-yellow water onto cropland which -- too often -- runs off into streams and ditches that feed into rivers and lakes, including Grand Lake St. Marys.

The Ohio Farm Bureau insists that most of the farms in the area are "family farms," which is true -- the majority of farms in the area not factory farms, and do no generate anywhere near the amount of nutrients that industrialized operations create. And besides, even massive factory farms (officially known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs) are usually owned by families, although they don't typically own the animals. They contract out to large corporations, sharecropper style, to raise them. The contractor is left with the problem of disposing of so much manure, not the company.

For years, nutrient levels in Grand Lake St. Marys have been rising. But only in the last three years have they gotten dangerously high, fueling algae blooms that strangulate fish, smother the water in a putrid green-and-turquoise foam, clog boat engines, foul the air with rancid odors, and emit toxins that can cause permanent health problems in people.

"We have a crisis situation," Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (D) said in a letter Friday to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and, tellingly, USDA Secretary Tom Vislack. "The economic viability of this region is ultimately linked to the health of this natural resource. We have reached a tipping point where the degraded nature of the lake is causing significant loss to local businesses and the total livelihood of the region."

In April 2009, levels of a toxin called microcystin were found to be extremely elevated, and the state issued a warning for people to "minimize contact" and avoid ingestion of the lake water.

And just two weeks ago, "the lake water turned a dark green color and became covered in a thick blue green scum," Strickland said, adding that state testing has also detected the presence of harmful bacteria and their associated toxins, one that attacks the liver and another that causes nerve damage.

Strickland asked the Feds for immediate environmental and economic assistance and, given the EPA's aggressive stance against farm runoff since Obama took office, his SOS will likely get some attention.

It is not logical to blame most of this mess on smaller, more sustainably run farms where animals are not packed in by the hundreds or thousands, and where there's enough land to adequately absorb the waste, thus reducing the chance of nutrient runoff.

Besides, small farms have graced this area for generations on end, and the lake did not become a Petri dish for liver toxins until now. Something has changed, and that something -- in my opinion -- is factory farming and its excess manure. And local people know it.

Local residents "say stricter regulations are needed on large farms," the Associated Press reported, "limiting when they can apply manure to their fields and how close they can plant to streams."

When I was researching my book Animal Factory - The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment - I came across this same situation wherever CAFOs had invaded: the tidewater area of North Carolina, the mega-dairy region of Yakima Valley, WA, or the "poultry belt" of Arkansas (whose big chicken growers like Tyson have been sued by the Oklahoma Attorney General for allowing nutrients from poultry waste to cross the border and pollute lakes and rivers).

In each case, once pristine waters had been spoiled after the CAFOs showed up.

I also spent time in western and northwestern Ohio, where property and small business owners are growing increasingly alarmed by the number of CAFOs that have been moving into the area. And I witnessed the Maumee River, choked with agricultural nutrients, which empties into Lake Erie, site of a massive and growing "dead zone."

The lake was the color of cappuccino, and there were warning signs about dangerous bacteria in the water. And yet, families with small children were still splashing around in the murky, foamy liquid.

I wondered if they knew that factory farming upriver was contributing to this slow death of a great lake, and if they knew that their barbequed chicken, egg salad sandwiches and pork sausages were likely produced at factory farms that leach nutrients into waterways that belong to the public.

We all contribute to factory farming every time we reach for the cheapest meat, milk and eggs at the supermarket. That bacon you had for breakfast might have come from a CAFO in the Lake St. Marys area -- or else fed on discount corn grown within the watershed.

Even if you are a strict vegan, your tax dollars still go to sustain this unsustainable system. So unless you are out there actively lobbying to kill taxpayer subsidies in the Farm Bill, don't think you get completely off the hook, either.

Which brings us back to the devastated economy of Grand Lake St. Marys - already buffeted by post-industrial job losses - and its desperate and rightfully angry people.

I know this question will not make me popular around the lake, but I do wonder how many residents there enjoyed some nice, juicy, barbequed pork ribs on the Fourth of July that were on special down at the discount center.

Like I said, we are all responsible for factory farm pollution, even those who suffer most from its excesses.

David Kirby is author of "Animal Factory - The Looming Threat of Industrial Pork, Dairy and Poultry Operations to Humans and the Environment" (St. Martin's Press).