Tag: factory farms

Great Lakes Manure Conference: Agriculture Runoff and Lake Erie

On May 1-2, 2024, FLOW policy director Carolan Sonderegger and legal director Carrie La Seur attended the Great Lakes Manure Conference in Toledo, Ohio. The conference was an opportunity to tour the Maumee River, and learn from experts about legal, environmental, and public health issues posed by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Below, Carolan shares her learnings and reflections from the conference:


On the first day of the Great Lakes Manure Conference in Toledo, attendees joined a bus tour of local CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and a boat tour of the Maumee River, which provided ample room for networking and knowledge exchange. During the boat tour, we were able to see several grain silo facilities alongside the river.

One of the major highlights of the tour was the Glass City River Wall, which happens to be the largest mural in the United States (pictured above). The mural is not just a beautiful sight to behold; it is also an inspiration and a tribute to the local community’s resilience and determination to seek clean water and better nutrition for people worldwide. The mural depicts the historical significance of the indigenous peoples who lived and farmed along Ohio rivers for thousands of years, a testament to their enduring spirit in the face of environmental challenges.

The Maumee River is one of the United States’ largest Areas of Concern (AOC) – areas that have experienced environmental degradation. The river has been a hotspot of industrial and municipal development for almost 200 years. Due to agriculture runoff, unregulated waste disposal, industrial contamination, combined sewer overflows, and disposal of dredged materials, the Maumee River is the largest system emptying contaminants into Lake Erie.

In the Ottawa River, one of several embedded watersheds, high levels of PCBs and other contaminants led to a no-contact advisory for over 25 years, which was finally lifted in 2018. Human activities have resulted in the loss of more than 90% of Northwest Ohio’s wetlands, including the Toussaint Wildlife Area, a historic wetland. The contamination led to a restriction on fish and wildlife consumption until only recently, which was lifted in August of 2022. Many community members were observed fishing for sustenance along the banks, despite the fish consumption advisory recommending no more than one meal per week.

As seen in the picture above, the Maumee River appears to be vastly different from the waters and rivers of Northern Michigan. In contrast to our clear blue Niibii (water), the Maumee River resembled a dark and murky likeness to chocolate milk due to an abundance of suspended sediment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been collaborating with federal, state, and local partners to carry out remediation and restoration work in the region to tackle the existing beneficial use impairments (BUIs) – which identify significant environmental degradation. Although much work remains to be done, significant progress has been made on contaminated sediment remediation and habitat restoration efforts. Although turbidity is a water quality indicator, it is not an overarching testament to the river’s rehabilitation.

On the second day of the conference, we convened at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center. We were privileged to hear from a diverse group of experts, including Kathy Martin, a civil engineer with over 25 years of experience in CAFOs; Fritz Byer, a Harvard Law graduate with over 35 years of practice; and others from Food and Water Watch, Waterkeeper Alliance, USDA/NRCS, and CAFO neighbors. The conference covered crucial topics, such as CAFO permitting (or lack thereof), manure digesters, CAFO history and economics, and the Nutrients Farm Bill. These discussions provided valuable insights into the current state of environmental conservation and the actions needed to address the issues.

Some speakers described the inconsistency in CAFO regulation from state to state in the Great Lakes basin, which aggravates cross-border cleanup challenges. Others addressed public health threats caused by CAFO waste, including multi-drug-resistant bacteria and avian flu, which can both spread to humans. University of Missouri Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics John Ikerd described the economics of CAFOs. It actually costs less to raise an animal on a traditional, diversified farm than in a CAFO, but CAFOs raise such large numbers of animals that smaller operations can’t compete on price.

Attorneys brought a legal perspective on current challenges to CAFOs, and how quickly the industry pivots to dodge regulation and enforcement. It is clear that we need a broad, national approach to reforming food systems, to restore healthy relationships among humans, animals, land, and water. This is FLOW’s vision.