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Commentary Energy & Environment

Opinion: Voters should pick candidates who vow to put a check on the poultry industry

USDA photo by Lance Cheung/Flickr.

By Chloë Waterman and Jorge Aguilar

The writers are, respectively, senior program manager for Friends of the Earth, and Southern region director for Food and Water Action.

With the elections approaching, Marylanders are considering what makes a worthy candidate. Will they fight for the people of Maryland? Or are they beholden to special interests? Unfortunately, many of our state’s past elected officials — Republicans and Democrats alike — have a history of yielding to the powerful poultry chicken industry at the expense of the health of the Chesapeake Bay and our local communities.

This election season we can change that — and a new poll makes it clear voters want elected officials who will finally hold the poultry industry accountable.

Maryland’s poultry industry has undergone explosive growth in recent decades. Poultry companies like Perdue and Mountaire Farms have installed massive factory farm operations along our Eastern Shore, raising unsustainable numbers of chickens in inhumane conditions. Maryland factory farms produce 39% more chickens today than they did in 1998, on an increasingly consolidated number of farms.

More chickens means more waste. Food & Water Watch research found that Maryland’s poultry industry produces as much as three times the waste as the human inhabitants of Eastern Shore counties. More poultry waste means increased nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, making this industry the largest source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay — and one of the reasons that states are not on track to meet the 2025 deadline for reducing Bay pollution.

Chicken factory farms are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color, causing adverse health outcomes like asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions. These operations are also associated with unhealthy levels of nitrate in drinking water, which can lead to cancer and birth defects.

Yet these multi-billion-dollar companies have largely managed to evade state oversight, profiting at the expense of contract growers, communities, and the environment.

For decades, Maryland’s leadership has allowed powerful industrial agriculture interests to pollute our environment and jeopardize the health of frontline communities. Legislation has been introduced in Annapolis year after year to fix this problem, but even modest proposals to simply monitor pollution from factory farms have never made it out of a committee. Maryland’s major climate legislation has left the poultry industry unscathed, despite the sector’s significant greenhouse gas emissions.

The poultry industry has found allies in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Governor Hogan campaigned against rules for reducing pollution from chicken manure and benefitted from a sizable contribution from Mountaire Farms to the Republican Governors Association. Governor O’Malley had close ties to Perdue Farms and threatened to veto legislation to hold the poultry industry accountable for its pollution.

By not reining in the harms of this industry, our governors and legislators have ignored the will of the people: Recent polling by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future shows overwhelming bipartisan support for increasing state oversight of the poultry industry.

State legislation requiring big poultry companies like Perdue to share liability for poultry waste with farmers has repeatedly failed, yet 78% of respondents (including 80% of Republicans) support such a policy.

An overwhelming majority of Maryland residents (89% of respondents) want greater enforcement and monitoring of pollution on factory farms, and almost 80% of respondents favor tougher environmental standards at factory farms, regardless of their size. And 59% support a statewide limit on the construction of new and expanding industrial chicken production facilities — a policy we have been pushing for years.

Government oversight of the poultry industry is an important issue for Marylanders gearing up to hit the ballot box. Nearly half (45%) of poll respondents said they would view a gubernatorial candidate more favorably if the candidate supports increasing oversight of the poultry industry, compared to only 10% of respondents who said they would view the candidate less favorably. Despite this political case for candidates to commit to stand up to Big Chicken, gubernatorial nominees Wes Moore and Dan Cox have so far been silent on the issue.

Marylanders are about to elect new leadership, and it is imperative that candidates commit to voters that they will stand up to the poultry industry once and for all. The new legislature must pass a moratorium on new and expanding factory farms and hold poultry companies responsible for disposing poultry litter. Our next governor should ramp up enforcement of our existing environmental laws on poultry corporations. The health of our communities and the Chesapeake Bay depend on it.