Friday, April 22, 2011

What Industry Doesn't Want You to Know About Animal Factories

See no evil, hear no evil, eat no evil. This seems to be the operating principle behind a slew of recent legal initiatives aimed at sheltering animal factory agriculture operations from public view.

State legislatures in Iowa, Minnesota and Florida are now considering bills that would make it a criminal offense to gain employment for the purposes of videotaping what goes on the behind warehouse walls of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. In March, the Iowa House of Representatives passed such an anti- “whistle blower” measure, co-written by the Iowa Poultry Association, which is now before the State Senate.

Pre-emptive legal strikes by the CAFO industry to put a chilling effect on anyone considering tarnishing its public image are hardly surprising. Industrial animal food producers are reeling from a series of shocking undercover videos that expose the abuse and suffering on the disassembly lines of slaughterhouses and inside warehouses crammed with hogs, laying hens, and meat birds. Such imagery is hard to shake from your subconscious. (Just this week a video was released of a sick calf getting killed with a pickaxe.) Opinion polls consistently show that Americans are increasingly concerned about animal welfare and health standards, and often willing to pay more for them.

While the industry would like us to believe that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, we are barely six months removed from last summer’s recall of 500 million eggs due to salmonella contamination from just two CAFO operations in Iowa. In response, people flocked to farmers markets, specialty retailers, and other venues to purchase free-range, organic, and cage-free alternatives.

In fact, industrial animal agriculture has already made bold assaults against First Amendment rights. In three states—Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota—it is illegal to photograph a factory farm without permission of the owner. Thirteen states have passed agricultural disparagement laws—a.k.a. veggie libel laws—that restrict what can be said about perishable food products. None of these laws have been challenged in federal court. The Texas Cattlemen’s Association, however, engaged Oprah Winfrey in a prolonged legal battle in the late 1990s for claiming on television that she had been “stopped cold from eating another burger” after learning about cattle feeding procedures from reformed rancher Howard Lyman. The popular talk show host had both sufficient resources and determination to fight and ultimately won the decision.

Numerous states have passed Common Farming Exemptions, which essentially allow the industry to determine animal cruelty statutes by defining them as standard practices. Does this sound like the fox guarding the henhouse? While the welfare of our pets is legally protected, there are no federal laws that presently govern the raising of food animals. Food animals are protected during transport (very hard to enforce) and during slaughter (though this doesn’t include the 9 billion chickens raised in the United States each year.)

The real question citizens and our elected representatives should be asking is, what do the animal factories have to hide, and do we really want to be part of such a clandestine food system? Is a cheap bacon cheeseburger or bucket of chicken worth the loss of democratic freedoms? We are talking about food production, after all, not missile defense.

Dr. Temple Grandin, animal behavior specialist at Colorado State University and long-time consultant to the livestock industry, argues in her most recent book, Animals Make Us Human, for greater transparency. Animal food producing operations, she suggests, should be able to pass a random inspection test, where a non-expert can visit and intuit how well animals are being treated. The best facilities, in her opinion, have video cameras streaming at all times, allowing for constant monitoring. Dr. Grandin is far from a radical animal welfare activist, and remains one of the most respected people in the world on such matters.

Animal agriculture impacts the planet in powerful ways. Tens of billions of food animals consume vast amounts of feed, generate massive volumes of waste, and make cheap fat and cholesterol laden meat, eggs, and dairy products the centerpiece rather than a vital component of every meal.

Proponents have been arguing for years that industrial food production is necessary to feed the word’s ever-increasing population. Essentially we are being told that the CAFO industry is too big to fail. Research increasingly shows that modern sustainable agriculture operations can be equally or more productive than conventional ones: without federal subsidies, environmental impacts, and dubious health implications—or infringements upon constitutionally protected freedom of speech.

Organic and sustainable agriculture practitioners have spent the last thirty years with an open source approach to information about farming techniques. For the most part, what they have learned the hard way about chemical-free, soil enhancing agriculture is out in the open for anyone to learn. Certified organic and biodynamic producers are required to pay fees to third-parties to audit their practices.

Recent moves to pre-empt the public from learning about the sometimes unspeakable conditions of modern intensive livestock operations are just the tip of the iceberg. Local communities are being stripped of their powers to determine zoning and land use concerning agricultural operations. Why aren’t local citizens permitted the right to decide whether a CAFO can be sited in their community in states like Illinois and Iowa?

There is a lot more information that the consuming public might find useful about industrial animal food production: the quantity of antibiotics used during a given production cycle; the exact contents of feed rations; the quantities, content and dates of air and water emissions from a CAFO; the amount of federal subsidies that support a particular operation. All are concerns with real public consequences.

We all have to eat. But we also have a right to know. Food should not come at the expense of animal welfare, the health of someone else’s community, or perhaps most importantly, our democratic freedoms.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Land of Stinkin’: When a Mega Dairy Takes Over

Imagine a series of pits that, if combined, would cover an area 40 acres in size carved 20 feet deep. Laid out as a perfect square, each side is 1,320 feet long, enough to hold 16 football fields. Now imagine it full of millions of gallons of festering manure from over 5,000 dairy cows plunked down into rural Jo Daviess County in northern Illinois. Imagine also, that these cesspools would be excavated from a porous Karst geological formation, with the propensity to percolate directly into the groundwater, along with a cocktail of nitrates,phosphorous, hydrogen sulfide, bacteria, and other substances like antibiotic drugs.

If your state’s Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t bother fulfilling its obligations to permit such potential pollution hazards under the Clean Water Act, you have little choice but to start your own citizen activist organization. For three years, the HOMES group (Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards) has been emptying their pockets for attorneys fees, organizing rallies, documenting abuses, and constructing a legal case against a California mega-dairy that wants to—as they see it—invade their community, an agricultural region with many legacy farms spanning multiple generations.

The challenge before the HOMES group is made all the more difficult because Illinois communities have lost the ability to refuse such a siting of an industrial animal factory operation in their area for concerns of protecting their own public health. “Local control” over such decisions, in Illinois as in many other states, has been relegated to the state level. In fact, just this week a HOMES' group appeal was denied by the Illinois Supreme Court, affirming that the state's Department of Agriculture has the ultimate say in CAFO siting decisions, and stripping citizens' rights to sue for improper implementation or enforcement of regulations.

I participated in a community discussion about CAFOs sponsored by the HOMES group last week. It was an opportunity to listen to talks from long-time activists Dr. Kendall Thu of Northern Illinois University (contributor of a great essay to my CAFO book) and Dr. John Ikerd, retired agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, whose work greatly informed the book’s pieces on the community impacts of industrial animal factory agriculture. I also had a good chance to meet other committed anti-CAFO activists, such as grain farmer Karen Hudson and public interest attorney Danielle Diamond, both with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

This leg of the CAFO outreach campaign started about an hour west of Chicago, driving west and south through the Land of Lincoln, known by the anti-CAFO activists as the Land of Stinkin’. There are over 3,200 CAFOs in the state, primarily hog and dairy operations. To pump a steady stream of feed into these protein factories, Illinois produces a staggering amount of corn. We drove for hours and hours at the 65 mph speed limit, passing field after monoculture field of corn, fields right up to the highway, right up to farm houses, right next to mutated suburban developments with barely a forest or hedgerow or clump of trees in sight. As they say, planted “fencerow to fencerow.” In this day of soaring commodity prices, soaring demand for animal feed and ethanol, it seems the only way an Illinois farmer would maintain any habitat at all is if the government (aka taxpayers) pay them for it.

The mega-dairy that the HOMES citizen activist group is fighting against is owned by A. J. Bos, a corporate agribusiness from California. It has already established one of the country’s largest dairies in northeastern Oregon, Threemile Canyon, which I have visited and am told is now the third largest emitter of airborne ammonia in the nation—no small achievement if true. One of the departing acts of public service of the Bush administration was to remove Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on reporting of air emissions including ammonia, an airborne pollutant and health hazard that can literally travel for miles from a livestock operation. The CAFO industry has been given a get out of jail free card when it comes to Clean Air Act violations.

This large-scale industrial assault is set against the backdrop of the unraveling meltdown of the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan and I can’t help thinking of the out of control scale of our industrial operations. The CAFO industry is essentially telling us they’re too big to fail, we need their massive confinement systems if we want a cheap and abundant food supply. The costs of polluting a community’s groundwater, eroding their living standards, degrading their air quality and filling the countryside with the odors of thousands of cows producing more manure than milk on a daily basis and never touching a blade of grass are simply the price of cheap dairy products. What they don’t say is that the jobs a CAFO actually brings in to an area will most likely be very few and low paying. It will also spell the end for numerous small and mid-size independent producers in the region. And in time, once a community is opened up to the animal factory industry, it begins a downward economic spiral with few other development options.

As the HOMES group fights with every breath to prevent becoming an ecological sacrifice zone, it appears that the owners of California-based A. J. Bos have no intentions of living anywhere near the operation. State and federal regulators have made the expansion of such filthy businesses possible. It is humbling to witness such a tragic abandonment of civic defense.

Glimmers of hope remain. Although construction of the mega-dairy is well underway, the barns remain incomplete and no animals are confined yet. Last October, a bright purple leachate of rotting silage, applied onto fields of the A. J. Bos land, contaminated a tributary to the Apple River. As a result, the US EPA is now questioning whether this CAFO can possibly be a “zero discharge facility” as the corporation has alleged. (That's essentially the way the system works. A CAFO promises they are not going to discharge, and the government believes them.) Meanwhile, a second citizens’ activist group, Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water, is successfully petitioning the US EPA to withdraw the Illinois EPA’s Clean Water Act permitting authority because of their failure to properly regulate existing CAFOs. The pressure is now on the Illinois EPA to step up their regulatory oversight or risk US EPA taking over administration of the Clean Water Act in the state.

In northern Illinois, and across the country, everyday citizens are doing the work of the state and federal government to prevent a complete fouling of their communities by industrial animal factories. This is hardly the time to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, a pursuit senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle are currently attempting. In many states, the Clean Water Act remains one of the only tools that offers citizens any kind of legal recourse and environmental protection from installations such as shit spewing absentee landowner corporate mega-dairies. In an age of increasing voluntary corporate compliance, community self-preservation hangs by barely a thread.