In the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when hardship and uncertainty has hit many economic sectors around the world, including meat and dairy production, Uruguay’s management of a previous crisis lends hope for a sustainable recovery. Uruguay, a country of 3.5 million people, produces enough milk to supply about 20 million people and is a major milk exporter. At the same time, Uruguay is one of a handful of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where water is potable, in both urban and rural areas, and stickers in lavatories (“Uruguay – a country with safe tap water”) sometimes remind consumers of this precious national asset.
In the last decades, however, the two ambitions – high-quality milk and safe tap water -- have increasingly come to a head.
In March 2013, after years of dairy expansion, the residents of Montevideo discovered that the water they drank smelled and tasted bad. Although the bloom outbreak only temporarily overwhelmed the treatment capacity of the national water utility, it shed a harsh light on the deteriorating quality of the Santa Lucia river which supplies over half the country’s population in drinking water. An analysis identified diffuse contamination of the watershed, driven in large part by livestock, as 80% of the problem.
The story of the watershed (or cuenca) of Santa Lucia since the 2013 incident, and the investments made to gradually clean up dairy production, exemplifies the country’s journey to reconcile agriculture with stricter environmental norms. It takes place at a time when food systems, globally, are coming under pressure to meet citizens’ rising expectations when it comes to the safety, health and environmental impact of food and drink. And the impact of animals on people’s health is under added scrutiny because of the zoonotic nature of the new coronavirus.
The story begins at the rear end of a cow, when all that has not been digested and used to produce muscle and milk, exits the cow in the form of effluent waste.
In the past, a milk producer like Richard Irureta, who grazes 80 cows on 60 hectares in the department of Canelones, would simply hose off the waste that accumulates on the concrete area when cows are milked, and let the effluent seep downhill into a small creek that borders his farm. “I wish I could say otherwise, but it’s the truth,” acknowledged Irureta during a visit in February. The 47-years old farmer started working with cows when he was 10 years old, alongside his father.
Unmanaged, effluent waste from private farms seeped into the Santa Lucia watershed, requiring costly treatment from the public water facility
Today, his cows’ dejections are channeled into settling basins (or piletas). The mix of liquid and solid organic matter is then carefully sprayed on pasture using a pump system. In other words, nutrient-rich manure, a byproduct of dairy farming that causes trouble when it leads to eutrophication or cyanobacteria in water, is now collected and recycled as natural fertilizer, contributing to the growth of healthy crops and pasture.