Poultry Matter: What to Do with All That Chicken Shit?

Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from agricultural activity is a major source of water pollution in many parts of the country. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, half of the phosphorous and 40 percent of the excess nitrogen result from agricultural runoff, leading to algae blooms and destructive conditions for the bay’s legendary fish, oysters, and crabs.

report from the Pew Charitable Trusts on the chicken industry, published over the holidays to little notice, identifies a significant contributor to the problem and proposes a useful solution.

Almost all chickens raised for meat today are grown under contracts between growers and large companies such as Tyson, Pilgrim’s, and Perdue. The chicken grower agrees to raise the company’s birds, using feed and drugs also supplied by the company. At the end of the contract the company picks up its chickens, leaving the grower with the manure and litter, and the responsibility to get rid of them.

In the past, and to a limited degree today, spreading chicken manure on farm fields was an acceptable practice. But in places with concentrated chicken operations, such as Maryland’s Eastern Shore, local fields are already saturated with fertilizers, and spreading manure on them is usually not a responsible option. Farm fields are also disappearing in the wake of housing development.

With limited options and resources for chicken growers — 71 percent of growers without other incomes are below the poverty line — lots of manure ends up in our waterways, whether through neglect or deliberate dumping.

At present, inadequate disposal of chicken waste constitutes a significant cost to society in the form of degraded waterways and the expensive public efforts to clean them up. No responsible party has the incentive, much less the resources, to deal with the waste properly. This is a classic collective action problem.