On the 50th anniversary of the death of scientist and environmentalist Rachel Carson, Compassion in World Farming CEO, Philip Lymbery, is visiting her birthplace to find out more about the raw truth of factory farming. He began his journey at the childhood home of Rachel, whose seminal book, Silent Spring, first raised the alarm over the dangers of industrial agriculture. Next, Philip spoke to academics at Johns Hopkins University, who confirmed his fears about intensive poultry farms and their devastating effect on the natural world. Today, Philip is in the air to get a bird’s-eye view of the problem.
A farm tractor clanks along with what looks like thick red smoke belching from the back of a long green trailer and billowing across the adjacent road. Reddish-brown lumps spray out onto the field behind.
This is poultry manure being blown mechanically into the air and spread across the soil. "If it rains, the stuff along the ditches and field edges could run-off and end up in Chesapeake Bay", warns my companion, local waterkeeper, Kathy Phillips. "The pungent smell of chicken manure being spread is a familiar part of spring here".
Factory faming from above
I’m sitting in a tiny four-seater chopper, the flight donated by Lighthawk; a unique group of volunteer pilots, who help environmental groups to tell their stories using aerial imagery. Coming from the UK, I wasn’t prepared for the scale of what I saw.
We fly over the extensive woodlands and rivers at the same height as the Turkey Vultures and a passing Bald Eagle; 500 feet up. As we judder and float along the line of the river, the forests quickly begin to open and we see our first chicken factory farm. "Twenty thousand birds per house down there", our pilot says into his mouthpiece. Then we see another factory farm, and another, and another, each with several long, low-slung warehouse-like buildings. Perhaps the most shocking sight for me was a huge installation with 30 of these huge sheds huddled together; it must have the capacity to produce more than 5 million chickens a year. This image of an intensive poultry unit was taken by Kathy Phillips.
The sight brings home to me the sheer scale of factory farming in this area. The problems faced by Chesapeake Bay are caused by the density of animals being reared; too many animals in too small a space. It’s why Compassion in World Farming was created – to raise awareness about the cruelties associated with factory farming. Now we know that factory farming is bad news for people and the planet, as well as animals.
The words of an academic from Johns Hopkins University, just a day before, rang in my mind: "The growth of the poultry industry is directly responsible for nutrient build-up in Chesapeake Bay". Now I have a better appreciation of why this is the case.
Have we heeded Rachel’s warning?
Of course, there has been some progress since Rachel Carson first raised the alarm about the potential impacts of industrial agriculture. But it seems that not everyone has heeded Rachel’s warning; areas of industrial agriculture have clearly run out of control. And it’s affecting the health of the planet, people and animals all around the world.