Animal Agriculture

Waste Management Practices Gao ID: RCED-99-205 July 1, 1999

Livestock and poultry production is an important part of the nation's economy, generating nearly $100 billion in farm revenue each year. But concern has increased about the pollution resulting from intensive livestock and poultry production, in which huge numbers of animals are raised in confined facilities. Nationwide, about 130 times more animal waste is produced than human waste--roughly five tons for every U.S. citizen--and some operations with hundreds of thousands of animals churn out as much waste as a city. Waste spills, leakage from waste storage facilities, and runoff from fields where waste has been applied as fertilizer threaten surface water and groundwater quality. Moreover, as animal production is increasingly concentrated in larger operations in some parts of the country, new waste management practices may be needed, including alternative uses for waste, new ways to treat waste, and better methods for moving waste to croplands for use as fertilizer. This report provides information on (1) waste management practices used in the United States; (2) practices used abroad; (3) potential new practices using technologies borrowed from other industries; (4) federal financial and technical assistance available to producers for waste management and the processes for obtaining this assistance; and (5) the role of federal agencies in conducting and supporting research to develop new waste management practices, including innovative uses of existing practices.

GAO noted that: (1) a wide variety of animal waste management practices are available to livestock and poultry producers; (2) these practices include techniques to: (a) limit waste runoff, such as cementing and curbing animal confinement areas or planting grassed buffers around these areas; (b) collect and store waste; (c) alter or treat waste, such as reformulating feed mixes or composting; and (d) use waste, such as an organic fertilizer, an additive to animal feed, or on-farm energy generation; (3) a farmer's selection of a particular practice or system of practices depends on site-specific factors, cost considerations, and state and local regulations; (4) animal waste management practices used in other major livestock and poultry production countries are similar to those used by U.S. farmers; (5) however, unlike the United States, some of these countries have government-subsidized companies manage animal waste and related structures, use waste for commercial energy generation, and impose requirements that limit the size of herds or flocks; (6) political and economic circumstances in these countries are factors in choosing these approaches to animal waste management; (7) regarding potential new practices based on technologies used in other industries, some federal officials believe that multistage treatment technologies used to manage municipal wastewater and sewage could be adapted for large animal production operations; (8) the Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the major federal programs that provide financial and technical assistance to producers to manage their animal wastes; (9) most of this assistance is provided through the Department's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which shares the cost of implementing waste management practices with farmers through direct payments; (10) several additional assistance programs are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency or the Fish and Wildlife Service; (11) USDA's Agricultural Research Service and Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service are the principal federal agencies conducting or supporting research to develop new or innovative animal waste management practices; and (12) for example, in recent years these agencies have conducted or sponsored research to reduce and stabilize the nutrients in animal wastes and to improve waste composting techniques.

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