Corporate Agribusiness and the Fouling of America’s Waterways

Pollution from agribusiness is responsible for some of America’s most intractable water quality problems – including the “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie, and the pollution of countless streams and lakes with nutrients, bacteria, sediment and pesticides.


Pollution from agribusiness is responsible for some of America’s most intractable water quality problems – including the “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie, and the pollution of countless streams and lakes with nutrients, bacteria, sediment and pesticides.

Today’s agribusiness practices – from the  concentration of thousands of animals and their waste in small feedlots to the massive planting of chemical-intensive crops such as corn – make water pollution from agribusiness both much more likely and much more dangerous.

The shift to such industrial practices is no accident. It is largely the result of decisions made in the boardrooms of some of the world’s largest corporations. Major agribusiness firms are responsible for the degradation of many American waterways, and they must change practices throughout their supply chains to clean up the mess.

Big agribusiness is a major polluter of America’s waterways.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agriculture is the probable cause for making more than 145,000 miles of rivers and streams, 1 million acres of lakes and reservoirs, and 3,000 square miles of bays and estuaries too polluted for swimming, fishing, drinking, and/or maintaining healthy wildlife.

This agribusiness pollution is a leading cause of the dead zones that plague waters from the Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, this pollution is so severe that it is beginning to threaten our drinking water as well.   In Toledo, Ohio, runoff from agribusiness operations contributed to a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie which contaminated the drinking water for 500,000 people around Toledo with cyanotoxins in 2014. In Iowa, nitrate pollution from agribusiness operations have so badly polluted the Raccoon River that Des Moines is now suing three counties for failing to stop contamination of its main drinking water source. And factory farms have contaminated drinking water wells from Washington to Wisconsin.

Top companies are producing staggering volumes of pollution.  In this report, we assess the water pollution footprint of five major agribusinesses:  Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill, JBS, and Perdue.   With each of these corporations, pollution in their supply chains includes manure from livestock, runoff from vast acres of grain, and direct dumping from processing facilities into our rivers and streams.

First, as the livestock industry concentrates its operations, more and more factory farms generate massive volumes of manure with no place to put it.  All too often, excess manure winds up in our rivers and streams.  We calculate the “manure footprint” of these five agribusiness companies as follows:

Table ES-1. Manure Footprint

Second, runoff from vast acres of commodity crops is a major pollution problem for our waterways.  A huge volume of corn and soybean production is driven by the need to feed livestock for these five companies and other agribusiness giants.  Massive production of chemical-intensive corn – driven by public policies that subsidize corn production – is wreaking havoc on waterways, including the Gulf of Mexico.

Finally, these same five companies also directly dump huge volumes of pollution into our rivers from their slaughterhouses and processing plants.  Four of them were among the top ten parent companies – from all industries – with the highest volumes of direct toxic discharges to our waterways in 2014, according to U.S. EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).  The fifth profiled company, Perdue Farms, ranked 11th for direct dumping in the same year.  These companies had the same basic pattern of pollution from over 2010-2014 as well – all ranking among the top 15 parent companies in America for direct dumping of toxic substances into our waterways.

Needless to say, agribusiness pollution is hardly limited to these five companies. In 2014, more than 200 agribusiness facilities in more than 30 states reported dumping toxic pollution into our rivers.

The solutions to curb agribusiness pollution are feasible and well-known to the industry.  It is well-documented that halting excess application of manure and other fertilizer is the most effective means to preventing agribusiness pollution.  Perennial cover crops, buffer zones, and other techniques can reduce runoff as well. Moreover, raising livestock in pasture at smaller scale minimizes manure as a pollution threat. And for existing factory farms, when compelled by legal action, agribusiness companies have even found ways to haul massive volumes of waste out of endangered watersheds.

Supermarkets, food service companies, and restaurant chains also bear some responsibility – and can exert enormous influence on – how agribusiness operates.  Under pressure from consumers and investors, major restaurant chains – and some of their agribusiness suppliers – have recently committed to end routine use of antibiotics on livestock.  Yet as two top retailers – Costco and Wal-Mart – enter into agribusiness production, it remains to be seen whether they will follow the industry’s polluting practices or chart a more sustainable path.


Corporate agribusiness companies must change practices to keep their waste out of America’s waterways.  To restore our rivers, lakes and streams, the industry must shift away from industrial-scale livestock facilities and overproduction of commodity crops which depend on heavy doses of fertilizers and pesticides.  Here are concrete steps that huge agribusiness companies can take to begin curbing pollution of our waters and transitioning toward more sustainable production:

  • 3rd party certification to ensure that none of the manure from animals raised for the company winds up in our waterways or groundwater.
  • Limit operations in watersheds and communities that are already overburdened with manure and other agricultural pollution.
  • For livestock production, commit that all new contracts will be with pasture-based producers using sustainable methods, not factory farms.
  • Big agribusiness companies should take full responsibility to remove excess manure from nutrient-saturated watersheds and ensure its sustainable use elsewhere.
  • For grain production in the supply chain, insist on best practices to prevent pollution – especially limiting the volume, timing, and methods of applying manure and other fertilizer to cropland, as well as perennial cover crops and buffer zones.
  • Create and use metrics to document substantial reductions in water pollution and make the results public.
  • Supermarkets, food service companies, and restaurants should use their leverage in the marketplace to insist on zero-water pollution from their suppliers.

State and federal governments should take immediate steps to protect America’s waterways from corporate agribusiness pollution, including the following:

  • Ban the worst practices, including leaking waste piles or lagoons and the over-application of manure or other fertilizer, that lead to pollution of waterways.
  • Establish moratoria on new or expanded industrial-scale livestock operations, especially in watersheds already overburdened by agricultural pollution.
  • Hold corporate agribusiness responsible for manure pollution by clarifying that companies are legally responsible for waste produced by livestock they own or have contracted for.
  • Ratchet down pollution limits in clean water permits for agribusiness facilities such as slaughterhouses and processing plants – especially for nitrate compounds.
  • Require enforceable clean water permits for all industrial-scale livestock operations.
  • Give environmental laws real teeth by beefing up inspections and ensuring that repeated or serious violations of water pollution laws are met with real penalties, not slaps on the wrist.  Where states are failing to protect their own waters and citizens’ health, EPA must step in.
  • The courts should uphold the Clean Water Rule to ensure federal protection for all of our nation’s streams, thousands of wetlands, and the other waters on which they depend.
  • Provide the public with access to detailed information about factory farms and other agribusiness facilities, including information about their total flow of pollution to the environment.
  • Preserve (or restore) the right of local communities to reject industrial-scale livestock operations to protect clean water, health, and/or quality of life.
  • Remove subsidies for industrial row crop and livestock production, and dramatically expand incentives for using sustainable farming methods  to ensure that American agriculture delivers safe, healthy food without destroying our waterways.