Growing momentum to curb large-scale, high polluting animal factory farms could result in a big win for the climate, while aiding independent farmers and ranchers trying to stay afloat in a struggling agriculture economy.
A bill introduced last month by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is the latest policy proposal to block the expansion of mega animal factory farms that are closely tied to air and water pollution in many rural communities. The Booker bill would place an immediate moratorium on the construction of new large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), defined as 1,000 animal units (1,000 cattle, 2,500 hogs, 30,000 hens or broilers) by the Environmental Protection Agency. Existing large-scale CAFOs would be expected to phase out by 2040 and be eligible for a voluntary buy-out program, including debt forgiveness, that supports CAFO operators in transitioning toward other systems of production including pasture-based livestock, specialty crops or organic production.
Ruminant animals, such as cattle, have a unique digestive system that causes these animals to be a source of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
From a climate perspective, the phaseout of these large animal operations is a major step forward. Data from the EPA shows a steady increase in agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, much of it linked to industrial systems of crop production and the rise of factory farms over the last two decades.
At factory farms, thousands of animals are raised in confined spaces, producing a massive amount of waste stored in manure lagoons. Ruminant animals, such as cattle, have a unique digestive system that causes these animals to be a source of the potent greenhouse gas methane. But it is the waste in factory farm manure lagoons, and the associated over-application of liquid manure, that is driving up factory farm emissions of both methane and nitrous oxide. As reported by the EPA, these harmful methane emissions—particularly related to swine and dairy manure management—have risen a surprising 66 percent since 1990.
Factory farms and their giant manure lagoons are also deeply vulnerable to extreme weather events associate with climate change. Multiple hurricanes have caused breaches in hog manure lagoons in North Carolina over the last several years. Extreme flooding caused overflows of hog manure lagoons in Iowa this past spring.
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Factory farms are facing growing opposition from rural communities around the country because of these pollution problems, but also the economic harm they contribute to when they flood the market, drive down prices, and undermine independent farmers and ranchers using more sustainable systems. Factory hog operations run by the Chinese-owned Smithfield recently lost five different nuisance lawsuits in North Carolina filed by neighbors in largely African American rural communities. Family farm and rural activists have called for a factory farm moratorium in Iowa and Oregon. Last month, the American Public Health Association urged federal, state, and local governments and public health agencies to impose a moratorium on all new and expanding CAFOs because of health and environmental concerns. And a recent poll from the largest pork producing state found that 63 percent of Iowans support a ban on new or expanding large-scale factory farms.
The Booker bill, backed by more than 15 rural and farm-based organizations, also takes important steps to address excessive corporate control of the meat and poultry industry that is squeezing independent family farmers out of the industry. The bill cracks down on monopolistic practices, offers protections for contract growers, restores mandatory country-of-origin labeling requirements for beef and pork and expands these requirements to include dairy products.
The latest proposal from Booker complements his ambitious Climate Security Act introduced last year, which would dramatically increase resources for important working lands conservation programs, including support for more sustainably managed grazing systems that can sequester carbon. Put together, these proposals to transition away from large-scale CAFOs; restore fair markets for independent farmers using sustainable, climate friendly practices; and expand investments in farm conservation programs provide clear guideposts for the urgent transition we need for farmers and rural communities in responding to the climate crisis.
Sen. Booker’s proposals are an important contribution to an urgent and evolving debate taking place at all levels of government on how to respond to an economic crisis effecting farmers and rural communities, and a climate crisis affecting us all.