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Reek of the Feedlot

"Toxic emissions" sounds like a precocious 10-year-old's euphemism for cattle reek, but that's how the term is applied in last week's press release on factory farm exemptions. Presumably because he wanted to go out on a wafting cloud of the odor, Bush tried to make it easier for factory farms to release unsafe levels of these emissions into neighboring communities without notification. It was one of our former president's final acts in office, and Earthjustice is hot on the case.

California's Central Valley is the capital of industrial agriculture, and on the big road Southern Californians call "The Five," you can experience those toxic emissions firsthand. At certain spots along "The Five," a sickening odor invades the car. You may suspect your travel companion and passive-aggressively roll down the window, but once you notice the sea of cows ahead, the window goes back up quick. The smell precedes the cows by a good mile or so. And if it's that traumatic to whiz past doing 80 mph, imagine working at the feedlot or living nearby.

Any questions about whether feedlot agriculture is wrong, your guts will answer for you. Seeing animals crushed together, knee-deep in a fecal swamp, the revulsion is automatic. But we're trained to mistrust that natural reaction. The ethic of industrial agriculture goes, "Hey, it may not be pretty, but this is the modern, efficient—the only—way to make a hamburger. (Without us, some guys would starve.)" Animals grazing on green pasture may be bucolic and adorable, but ammonia fumes and antibiotic shots are the practical realities of fattening feeding a nation.

Trust that gag reflex; it actually is as bad as it smells. Factory farms produce obscene, concentrated quantities of animal waste, which release toxic pollutants like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide into the air. The fumes are enough to make feedlot neighbors sick, and they contribute their fair share to global warming, too. That's not to mention the degradation of nearby waterways, nor the food pathogens, like E. coli, that breed in the bellies of sickly feedlot cattle and are dispersed with their feces.

Of course, the cosmically unfortunate thing is that this potent source of pollution is the very stuff that's bagged and sold at garden centers. Industrial agriculture does a lot of ridiculous things while pretending to be hyper-rational. Like turn good fertilizer into toxic waste. And feed corn to cows, who live to graze. Unlike pasture grasses and legumey clover, corn needs lots of nitrogen fertilizer, and where's all that fertilizer to come from? Here's industrial ag's big finale: we'll make it from fossil fuels!