A 'checkoff' to fight bay pollution Proposal: A federal environmental official suggests that Maryland's poultry growers initiate a plan for improving water quality, rather than waiting for a government order.

On The Bay

September 11, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

YOU ARE FAMILIAR with the fruits of agricultural "checkoffs," whether you know it or not:

The white- mustachioed beautiful people touting milk; pork -- "the other white meat"; beef -- "the real thing."

All are industrywide campaigns, financed by each producer contributing, or checking off, so much money per bushel, pound or gallon.

Usually the proceeds go to marketing and promotion, sometimes to research. But in 1996, federal laws governing checkoffs were changed to permit such pots of money to also go toward environmental uses. The change was made to let California produce growers invest collectively in nonchemical pest management.

Now comes W. Michael McCabe, head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 3, which includes the Chesapeake Bay, with a further innovation, worth a lot more consideration than it has gotten to date.

He is telling poultry producers an environmental checkoff for improving water quality would be less onerous than waiting for his agency to dictate what they must do with mountains of manure from billions of chickens and turkeys.

McCabe, who spoke in Salisbury this week at a meeting convened by Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland, is head of a national EPA task force looking at pollution and the poultry industry.

McCabe is no stranger to the poultry industry. He worked with processors and growers for Delaware U.S. Sen.Joseph R. Biden Jr., and has been talking with the industry for a year as EPA readies a draft strategy on agricultural pollution, to be unveiled Thursday.

A complex problem

It's a complex problem with no quick fixes, agreed speakers in Salisbury ranging from farmers and scientists to agriculture and environmental officials.

Consider phosphorus, whose runoff from soils saturated with it is the most difficult pollutant for farmers on the Shore to control.

About 18 million pounds of phosphorus each year is "imported" to Maryland's Eastern Shore in chicken feed and sewage sludge and commercial fertilizers -- but less than 8 million pounds gets "exported" in chickens and crops, said Russ Brinsfield, an ag researcher with University of Maryland.

That "surplus," more than 10 million pounds a year, much of it in poultry manure that has to be spread somewhere, translates to a continuing buildup of phosphorus -- equivalent to adding an unneeded 11 pounds each year to every acre of Shore cropland.

McCabe thinks the poultry industry's creation of its pot of money to deal with its manure problem has several virtues.

Even adding half a cent a pound to the price of chicken in checkoff costs would generate $180 million a year. The added costs would be spread equitably (i.e., based on pounds of chickens sold) among poultry processors, and would be passed on to consumers.

The idea that we are all -- farmers, processors and consumers -- part of a system that produces food abundantly and cheaply, but not cleanly, is key to making agricultural pollution control affordable and fair.

Most of us, to deal with a huge national water quality problem, could stand adding $1.50 a year to our food budget (that #F assumes a family of four, consuming the per-capita 75 pounds or so of chicken each year).

Even if we assume larger checkoff amounts, and even additional ones to also deal with pressing waste problems from the turkey, dairy and beef industries, we would be talking in terms of extra dimes or quarters each week.

For the poultry industry, the real beauty would lie in having more control of how and where cleanup money was spent. The industry would possess the ability to innovate and be efficient that industries often complain blanket regulation denies them.

Places like Maryland, where the poultry industry is working on partial solutions to the manure problem, could be credited for investments made.

McCabe says he has been "disappointed" by the poultry industry's lack of enthusiasm to date. "It's just a concept he's floated we're still listening," a spokesmanfor a major industry trade group, the National Broiler Council, told me.

I think the industry as a whole is waiting to see how hard the EPA is going to move on regulations before owning up to its water quality responsibilities.

Why not? The poultry companies that own the chickens, own the feed and tightly manage the whole growing process are able to place the responsibility for manure disposal on the thousands of small farmer-growers.

We will never restore our environment through regulation and government alone. But neither would I want to rely on business and industry to get us there, without a Mike McCabe and an EPA in the background.

Failing grades for four Worcester commissioners

A week before the primary elections, a coalition of state and local environmental groups has issued a report card flunking four of Worcester County's five commissioners on a range of actions affecting water quality.

Only Jeanne Lynch, the lone Republican, got a passing grade -- 100 percent. The four Democrats each got 17 percent.

The four who failed were featured in this column as being "in a class by themselves" among Maryland counties, after they dumped an environmentalist from their planning commission to appoint a blatant violator of local environmental protections.

The four have called the report card everything from "garbage" to "politically motivated."

Could it be politically motivated?

"You bet it is," replied the report card's authors in a letter to a local paper.

They continued: "We hope this results in the election of public officials who have the ability, desire and intent to understand that the ecological health of our watershed is inextricably linked to the economic viability of our tourism and agricultural based community."

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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