Farmers or the Environment? A False Choice
The debate unfolding in Annapolis about Pfiesteria is troubling.
In 1991, a smart newspaperman named E.J. Dionne struck a chord with his book, Why Americans Hate Politics. It explained his belief that people were fed up with government decision-making because those at the top deceive us about the true nature of problems.
Rather than getting to the heart of issues, Dionne concluded, liberals and conservatives alike give us false choices for the purpose of maintaining their constituencies. An example: You're either for jobs or against jobs, for the environment or against it.
Sounds to us like we could be settling into the same old phony arguments in debating what to do about the Pfiesteria problem that threatens our watermen and the vitality of the Chesapeake Bay. You're either for chicken farmers or against them; you either want to fight Pfiesteria or you think it's no problem.
Are we succumbing to false choices? Could we be overlooking the real problem while forgetting old-fashioned innovation?
Here are a few facts: The poultry industry is rolling in profits from phenomenal growth. Since the 1960s, we have doubled our per-capita consumption of chickens to 73.5 pounds per person. Poultry companies ship 17 percent of that abroad, to the tune of about $2 billion in annual sales. Perdue Farms Inc. is third in production, topped only by Tyson Foods, Inc. and Gold Kist, Inc. So says the American Broiler Council, the trade group for the companies.
Poultry companies recruit along the border with Mexico to hire people to work for modest wages in their processing plants. Workers suffer an inordinately high rate of carpal tunnel and repetitive motion illnesses as they reach up to prepare chickens that speed by overhead on stainless steel racks. (We've seen it.)
These companies are also less than generous with contract growers, who provide the land, buildings and the labor. When the chickens are ready for market, the farmers get pennies per pound - and piles of manure for which companies take no responsibility.
Are immigrant laborers and Maryland farmers in the same boat?
Two things must happen in this debate: First, we must understand that we are dealing with an industry with a spotty track record in its dealings with people and the land. That history should not be lost on the General Assembly Annapolis when it comes to aiming legislation at companies. Nor should it be lost on those who single out farmers.
Secondly, rather than waiting for legislative solutions, we must speed efforts to find innovative methods to deal with mountains of chicken manure. In West Virginia, the state has set up an office to find places up to 300 miles away that need the manure as fertilizer. Return trips are coordinated with other cargo so that truckers don't have to deadhead it home.
With Pfiesteria season around the corner, it's time to wise up about the nature of the problem and the consequences of scrapping among ourselves.
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VolumeVI Number 7
February 19-25, 1998
New Bay Times
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