What's missing in Pew Research vs. the poultry industry

The Pew Environment Group and the poultry industry are in a bit of a tiff.

The debate began with Pew’s recent study of pollution from large-scale poultry producers. The summary on the Pew website notes that
“in just over 50 years, the broiler industry has been transformed from more than one million small farms spread across the country to a limited number of massive factory-style operations concentrated in 15 states,” said Karen Steuer, who directs Pew’s efforts to reform industrial animal agriculture. “This growth has harmed the environment, particularly water, because management programs for chicken waste have not kept pace with output.”
The summary then gives these statistics:
  • In less than 60 years, the number of broiler chickens raised yearly has skyrocketed 1,400 percent, from 580 million in the 1950s to nearly nine billion today
  • Over the same period, the number of producers has plummeted by 98 percent, from 1.6 million to just over 27,000 and concentrated in just 15 states.
  • The size of individual operations has grown dramatically. Today, the typical broiler chicken comes from a facility that raises more than 600,000 birds a year.
The Pew report—which in particular studied nutrient loading into Chesapeake Bay—has a few feathers flying at the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, which released a scathing statement in response. Here’s a sample:
The report's critique is terribly misplaced, and once again demonstrates Pew's bias against modern farming practices. The poultry community has already taken meaningful steps to further reduce nutrient impacts on the environment. The sources of nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay and other watersheds are ubiquitous. EPA acknowledges the positive steps agriculture has implemented in reducing its environmental footprint in the Bay region, even as the nutrient contribution from non-agricultural sources continues to grow.
You can read the report and the response for yourselves, as well as some of the media coverage (here, here, or here). What gets lost in all this back and forth is, usually, the truth.

As a regulator myself—and a Catholic one—I find it nearly impossible to hold any group, industry or individual in either the “all good” or “all bad” category. Our fallen human nature keeps most of us from ever being completely selfless, although we do often try—and by “we,” I mean even the people at big corporations.

I’ve seen local communities, local public employees and volunteers excel and sacrifice for the common good. And I’ve seen others only care about themselves. I’ve seen corporations (large and small) care more about the bottom line and their corporate image than anything else, and I’ve seen others go well out of their way at significant cost to simply and quietly be good neighbors and good stewards of the environment.

My point is that we should not always assume that big business is inherently evil—even when they’re not always good—nor should we given them license to do what they will just because they employ many, many workers. And we should not forget that there is such a thing as the environmental protection industry, and it, too, can be big business.

In other words, there is a pastoral element to conflicts like the one between Pew and the poultry industry. Both groups have something to offer mankind. But if one or the other can only see the world in black and white—with the bad guys always being the other guys—then the only people to benefit will be the news outlets.

I think of a statement in Leo XIII’s groundbreaking 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum. Here he’s speaking of labor and management, but the sentiment applies just as well to professional environmentalists and the industries they monitor:
The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvelous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice.
May God bring cooperation and solutions to the many good (but not perfect) people at Pew and the poultry industry. May God grant that they, we and all creation benefit from their mutual respect and fraternal efforts.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.