Reviewed by Olivia Butz
“Sometimes the greatest threats don’t come from foreign terrorists. Sometimes they come from within.” So says one of the interviewees in A River of Waste: The Hazardous Truth About Factory Farms, an understated but hard-hitting and fair documentary that outlines the threats posed to human health and the environment by factory farming pollution.
The film is framed by a Cree Prophecy: “Only after the last tree is cut down, the last of the water poisoned, the last animal destroyed…only then will you realize you cannot eat money.” Director Don McCorkell makes it clear that the human costs of these operations are simply too high, and the government is not using its power to protect the health of its citizen and land.
A former politician from Oklahoma, McCorkell, who also narrates the film, does not reveal his identity until the conclusion of the film. Revealing his identity would have helped me to trust his claims more fully, though I concede that he probably wanted the facts to speak for themselves in lieu of the fact that politicians often have not taken the views of the public or of independent scientists into consideration when making decisions regarding the regulation of the factory farm industry.
US standards and regulations are much weaker than other industrialized countries, according to McCorkell, who carefully lays out evidence to show that powerful industrial lobbying and control are to blame. He argues that the public needs to mobilize and express widespread dissent regarding these practices in order for legislators to vote in stricter standards that ensure the health and safety of all.
McCorkell asserts the need for vigorous legislative and judicial action in the face of the challenges of managing the waste from factory farms. One precedent that proves the government has already done this and can do it again is evolution of modern sewage systems. His desire is to prevent—rather than clean up after—a public health crisis as a result of factory farm pollution.
Citing local examples within Oklahoma state, McCorkell highlights the efforts of the state attorney general to bring a lawsuit against major poultry corporations for the damage factory farm runoff has produced in state waterways, depleting the oxygen sources in significant ways through the growth of a type of algae known as fisteria. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against those who wish to prosecute such corporations. Federal legislature currently forbids animal waste from being categorized as hazardous. In addition, on the economic level, many corporations are multi-state and can simply move to another state if local laws become too restrictive for their tastes. Other strong-arm tactics include abuse of power at the highest levels, industry lobby money poured into political campaigns in exchange for less restrictive laws, control of academic resources, and delaying tactics. Perhaps the most damning example of political abuse is the ability of certain corporations to claim immunity to the federal Clean Air Act.
McCorkell “grades” the US regulations for factory farms, flunking the country in all of the following categories: ammonia levels, antibiotics, growth hormones, odors and dust, disease, as well as sewage and waste. He presents a cadre of statistics to support his claims that the US is failing its citizens in its neglect to hold factory farms and the corporations they are affiliated with accountable. Many of these topics overlap to mount a devastating case against current waste management practices. The conditions offered to animals in Confined Animal Feeding Operations, also known as CAFOs, have a direct impact on the health of the humans who eat or live near them. These issues include respiratory problems affiliated with ammonia emissions, developing strands of bacteria resistant to commonly used antibiotics, endocrine disruption as a result of hormone injection, decreasing property values and quality of life, increased possibility for widespread food-borne illness, emissions of arsenic through chicken litter poisoning the air of surrounding communities, and emissions of methane gas as a result of the interaction between fluorine and algae in the effort to purify water for human and animal consumption.
The film is strong in content and voices a prophetic call to action. It also encourages civic organizing and argues that those pushing for change in this area must have strong moral will and patience and persistence. The documentary offers balanced perspectives from academics, activists, and families affected. It is also politically savvy. Though it critiques the industrial system at large—Paul Muegge, an Oklahoma State Senator through 2002, is cited as saying, “What we are doing is not sustainable!”—it also offers support for reform within the current system.
Olivia Butz is a Sider Scholar at Palmer Theological Seminary. She is a first year student in the Master of Theological Studies Program with a concentration in Christian Faith and Public Policy. Her passions within this area include creation care and food systems reform.
Don’t miss Bruce Friedrich’s PRISM article, Pray Ceaselessly and Eat Justly.