Politicians and government officials are fond of saying the U.S. has the safest and most affordable food supply in the world, thanks to the rules and regulations they have created. In reality, current policies and regulations fail to address many of the underlying problems in agriculture.
The modern era of factory farms produces mountains of manure, creating a waste-management nightmare that often "leaks" into unsuspecting communities by way of water, air and soil pollution. Meanwhile, new, untested technologies like genetically modified seeds dominate commodity crop production. And at the top of the food chain are a few giant agribusinesses that exert enormous market control and political influence.
Government regulations and legislation have lead to these problems, but they can also fix them. Shaping federal farm and food policy, especially with the farm bill, with different priorities will be necessary to make sure small independent farms get a fair shake in the marketplace and restore sustainable regional food systems that supply healthy food.
Whether you buy food at a grocery store, a farmers market or a cafeteria, the next Farm Bill will affect what you eat. This major piece of legislation includes hundreds of billions of dollars directed to everything from food stamps to farm subsidies to crop insurance.
To a large extent, our current model of agriculture, dominated by large-scale, industrialized practices, is the result of the farm bill. As a result of farm policies that incentivize overproduction, for example, crop prices have fallen, meaning it costs more to grow grains than agribusiness spends to purchase them. In turn, this means that factory farms are able to purchase animal feed at very low prices. Traditionally, farmers raised livestock and also grew the grains used to feed the livestock on their farm. In this way, changing the policy surrounding how corn and soy are grown could change the economics of factory farming.
The farm bill also sets money aside for environmental and land-stewardship programs, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The program lists the reduction of industrial farm contamination as a top priority, 3 and more than 50 percent ($9 billion) of the Farm Bill’s conservation fund historically has been spent on EQIP. 4 In other words, your tax money is being used to help pay for the costs associated with pollution large industrial farms create. A better policy would be to require factory farms to pay for their own clean-up costs and use government conservation funding to help smaller independent farms improve their practices.
Making policy changes within the farm bill, which is up for reauthorization every five years, is critical to swinging the pendulum back toward a more common-sense policy approach to agriculture. Key changes include breaking up corporate control of agriculture, incentivizing conservation programs that reward responsible stewardship of farmland and establishing a support system for farmers that stabilizes prices and helps blunt the impact of volatility in weather and agricultural markets.
A large swath of American farmlands is dedicated to genetically engineered crops, including the vast majority of corn, cotton and soy. The United States, by a large margin, dominates global biotech production, in large part because of government endorsement of the technology. 6 Europe has been particularly resistant to biotechnology out of concerns for its safety to humans and the environment 7 and the requirement that genetically engineered foods be labeled. While relatively little is known about some aspects of genetically engineered crops, including potential food safety or health problems, the United States has continued to embrace the technology even as it has resulted in widespread environmental problems, intense market concentration, poor-performing seeds and aggressive legal attacks on farmers. 8 9 10 11
Currently there are no genetically engineered animals in the human food supply, but a new GE salmon product is in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval pipeline. In a 2010 meeting, the agency made broad, unsubstantiated claims about the safety of GE salmon, even as independent scientists skewered the FDA’s review process. 12 GE salmon purportedly grow faster than regular salmon, but have reduced nutritional value, exhibit high levels of hormones that have been linked to cancer, and may cause allergy problems for consumers. 13 They also pose an environmental threat since escaped GE salmon could successfully mate with wild salmon, causing unknown but potentially serious consequences to wild populations. 14
The environmental oversight of factory farms is disjointed, toothless and almost non-existent. Weak oversight of waste disposal, a major expense in livestock operations, reduces the costs of factory farming and encourages the development of increasingly larger operations. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tasked with regulating factory farms, it has done little or nothing to control the environmental damage caused by these operations. Adequate oversight has been repeatedly blocked by the livestock industry, which has opposed any meaningful safeguards or oversight of factory farm pollutants.
The EPA oversees laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act that should trigger programs to monitor and control animal waste and pollution from factory farms. Regulation of the water pollution associated with these facilities is conducted by individual states. Not surprisingly, the corporations that promote and benefit from industrial farming methods are hard at work in state capitols and Washington, D.C., which has resulted in a weak patchwork of rules and regulations that regularly results in major environmental damage. 15 For example, though factory farms produce as much waste as mid-sized cities, they have very little capacity and no requirement to treat it, leading to environmental damage. 16
Similarly, the EPA does almost nothing to reduce the release of dangerous air pollution from factory farms, like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. In 2005, the EPA introduced the Air Compliance Agreement, which effectively offers factory farms a "free pass" for air-quality violations as long as they participate in and pay for part of an emissions monitoring study. Until the EPA completes the monitoring study and establishes new rules to control air emissions, which it has not yet done, the participating factory farms will not be fined for any air pollution caused by their operations. 17
According to the EPA, many negative impacts of industrial farms that are immediately visible to a community – such as odor, nuisance, and health code violations - are not regulated by federal laws. 18 Many township and county governments have responded to the threat industrial farms pose to their community’s health, economy, and quality of life by enacting measures that keep them from operating in that region. 19
For instance, in 1997, local sustainable agriculture groups and rural residents in Minnesota successfully helped pass state legislation establishing air quality standards for hydrogen sulfide emissions in response to a rash of illnesses related to factory farm pollution. 20 That same year, North Carolina placed a moratorium on the construction and expansion of hog farm waste lagoons, which was made permanent in 2007. 15 Still, factory farming has increased throughout North Carolina since then, demonstrating the power of agribusiness. 15
Unfortunately, the US model of factory farming is finding a new home in developing countries where public health and environmental regulations are less stringent. After North Carolina enacted their moratorium on large hog farms, Smithfield purchased a majority share of Animex, the largest meat producer in Poland. 21
Like so many other industries that hope to influence lawmakers, agribusiness uses its enormous wealth to influence government decisions. Extreme concentration in agricultural markets—where four or five firms control many aspects of the food chain 22 —has resulted in enormous profits and power that can be used to win friends in high places.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, agribusinesses contributed more than $381 million to the election campaigns of federal candidates and incumbents between 1990 and 2006. 23 This figure is higher than that of the total donations over the same time period by several other powerful industries, such as transportation ($330 million), 23 defense ($108 million) 23 and energy/natural resources ($384 million). 24
Where does all this money go? A considerable portion of agribusiness money ends up in the pockets of politicians who have the most control over agricultural policy, including members of the House and Senate agriculture committees. Since the 2000 election cycle, agribusiness has contributed more than $120 million to Congress, $88.9 million of which has gone to the reelection campaigns of congressional incumbents. 25
Corporate agribusiness also lobbies hard on the state level. In 2009, agribusiness went on the attack in Ohio, creating a state ballot measure that proposed shifting oversight of factory farms from the Ohio State Department of Agriculture to a governor-appointed board, 26 packed with members friendly to corporations. The proponent group generated an incredible $5.4 million in a matter of a few weeks from corporate players like Monsanto and Cargill, using the money to inundate voters with an aggressive media campaign. 27 The ballot measure succeeded, enacting a radical policy shift in Ohio toward non-democratic oversight of food production, and demonstrating how far corporate agribusiness will go to make sure policies and regulations are favorable to its bottom line.
We can achieve a healthy food system if enough people demand change in the next Farm Bill. A good bill would:
As voters and consumers, we have the power to challenge the food and agriculture companies that threaten our public health and the environment.