Last week Perdue, the chicken industry giant, launched a new greenwashing effort with a release of its “We Believe in Responsible Food and Agriculture” sustainability platform. The platform covers a range of issues from employee wellness programs to workplace safety to philanthropy. The platform even includes some environmental initiatives, such as installing solar panels and planting oysters. Unfortunately, though, Perdue’s efforts fail to remedy the most unsustainable part of its operations: the hundreds of millions of pounds of untreated waste that its chickens produce on the Eastern Shore of Maryland every year.
Its no easy task putting lipstick on a chicken, since chickens don’t have lips, but Perdue doesn’t get to dress up its inherently unsustainable operation by trying to using inadequate substitutes for cleaning up their mess. It’s way past time for the big Eastern Shore chicken companies, including Perdue, to be held accountable for the environmental impacts of a meat production system from which they profit so richly.
One of the biggest threats to the Chesapeake Bay, and the fishing and recreational communities who rely on it, is phosphorus and nitrogen. These pollutants are choking the life out of the Bay at an alarming rate, with massive dead zones experienced each summer. Down on the Eastern Shore, where Perdue’s operations are concentrated, chickens excrete levels of nitrogen equal to that produced by eight million people—two million more than the entire population of Maryland.
Bay-wide, manure contributes 37 percent of phosphorus loads to the Bay. In the Maryland counties where Perdue’s chicken growers operate, the fields are so saturated with phosphorus that most of them simply can’t absorb anymore. A recent ten-year study indicates that even if you stopped dumping manure on these fields tomorrow, it would take decades before levels would begin to drop, and the Bay would start to see some recovery.
None of this, of course, stopped the Maryland chicken industry from railing against a State Department of Agriculture plan to implement emergency phosphorus relief to the Bay before the 2013 growing season, and before another year was lost to Bay degradation. The emergency regulations would have placed some controls on the amount of chicken manure dumped on phosphorus-saturated farm fields so that we could begin the long process of Bay restoration. But after some foot stomping and fist pounding by industry reps, the administration quickly agreed to scuttle the emergency regulations in exchange for the hopes of a new regulation in the coming year.
What is perhaps most disingenuous, though, about Perdue’s self-laudatory announcement is that it masks the sheer inequity of the failing Bay restoration system. In 2012 the state legislature enacted a $60 per household “flush tax” on Marylanders. This money goes into the Bay Restoration Fund to help remedy the impacts of human waste on the Bay.
Each person, on average, generates about 183 pounds of waste each year. Contrast that with the hundreds of millions of pounds of manure Perdue’s birds produce in Maryland each and every year. And yet the Maryland legislature has never asked Perdue to pay a penny into the Fund. Instead, many of the same legislators who voted to double the flush tax on their own constituents in 2012 voted in 2013 to hand the chicken industry 10 years of immunity from having to comply with any changes in protective environmental standards necessary to protect the Bay.
Not only does Perdue get to avoid paying for the mess it creates but, in addition to the $501 million dollars Marylander’s have paid into the Fund since 2004, state taxpayers have provided over $4.2 million dollars in corporate welfare payments to Perdue since 2008. And the icing on the giant, chicken manure cake? Most of these payments were provided under the state’s Manure Transport Program in which Perdue gets taxpayer dollars to go out and pick up its own waste from its growing operations. As part of its sustainability platform, Perdue touts its Perdue AgriRecycle program as an alternative for land application of this waste, but this alternative only takes a small fraction of the excess chicken waste on the Eastern Shore, and returns half of it to the Bay watershed in the form of fertilizer pellets.
If state legislators really cared about their constituents, they’d be voting on a flush tax for the big chicken companies. Because right now, while all the rest of us Marylanders have to pay to flush our toilets, Perdue flushes for free. And if Perdue really cared about a “sustainability platform,” they’d take on some responsibility for the massive amounts of the waste their birds generate on the Eastern Shore and elsewhere across the country and dispose of their waste responsibly, like every other industry in the country is required to do. While employee wellness is certainly a laudable endeavor, its time for the big chicken companies like Perdue to focus much more of its efforts on Bay wellness too.