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Is Obama Ready to Take on Factory Farming?

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Part Two: White House Realities

(Note: This is the second part of an essay adapted from David Kirby's upcoming book Animal Factory. To read PART ONE, please click here).

In 2008, Barack Obama was swept to victory on a national wave of desire for change -- change that included a coherent program for curbing many of the excesses associated with modern American animal agriculture.

Obama's Plan to Support Rural Communities appeared on the White House website in January, 2009, and read like a manifesto from grassroots groups trying to defend their vision of what a traditional, sustainable agrarian way of life should be.

The main problem, Obama said, was that family farmers were being squeezed out by big industry. "Consolidation has made it harder for mid-size family farmers to get fair prices for their products and compete on the open market," his plan began. "Rural communities are often left behind." To counter that, Obama vowed to take action, including:

Provide a Strong Safety Net for Family Farmers: Target financial support to family farmers, impose a $250,000 payment cap to fight consolidation, and close "loopholes that allow mega farms to get around the limits."

Prevent Anticompetitive Behavior Against Family Farms: Give independent farmers "fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and transparency in prices," and pass laws that protect "independent producers by banning the ownership of livestock by meat packers," who produce more than 20 percent of the nation's hogs. "When meatpackers own livestock, they bid less aggressively for hogs and cattle produced by independent farmers," the Obama document said.

Regulate CAFOs: - Set tough air and water pollution limits on nitrogen, phosphorus, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and other pollutants, and "strictly monitor and
regulate pollution from large CAFOs, with fines for those who violate tough air and water quality standards."

Encourage Organic and Sustainable Agriculture: Help meet demand "for sustainable, locally grown, grass-finished and heritage foods, which is growing quickly," by supporting niche markets and "the continued growth of sustainable alternative agriculture."

They were heartening words for many reformers, but most of them remain as nothing more than words. True, the president has an extraordinary spoonful of troubles on his plate, and most CAFO activists remain patient and optimistic that their issues will not get buried and forgotten after the "fierce urgency of now" has passed.

The administration refused to answer a few simple questions on agriculture policy, though the White House did email me this statement:

During the campaign the President outlined a vision for rural America that focused on rejuvenating local economies and protecting family farmers. That agenda has not changed. The Administration's priorities are reflected in the President's budget, the allocation of critical Recovery Act funding, and a new culture of leadership at USDA based on developing sustainable rural economies.

But in July, a group called the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project was invited by USDA to present their ideas for reform. They leapt at the chance.

"We hope these suggestions start a new dialogue between USDA and the sustainable farming community," the group wrote to Secretary Tom Vilsack, suggesting how "limited resources could re-establish the kind of agriculture that fed this nation successfully for so long."

Sustainable agriculture had received short shrift in Obama's budget, where SDA programs were still "structured to promote and subsidize the failed model of large, corporate farms and vertically integrated processing and distribution."

Measures to counter that trend included:

■ Put greater focus on farmers beginning or transitioning to socially responsible meat production and provide USDA funding for CAFOs to convert over sustainable models.

■ Fund purchases of local, sustainable food for school lunches, colleges/universities, military bases, prisons, etc, to help local farmers and provide healthy foods.

■ Provide start-up assistance for small, multi-species processing facilities within 30-45 minutes of each other and link them to mobile processing units.

■ Limit animal ownership by meat packers to no more than 14 days before slaughter and require that a daily percentage of meat-packer purchases come from an open-bid market.

■ Publicize and educate the general public on the merits of supporting "local, safe and healthful food systems," and on what it means to local economies and the environment.

To everyone's astonishment, Vilsack sent back a prompt and encouraging letter. He was not only listening, but thinking along at least some of the same lines.

I hope the outcome of current USDA activities will reassure you that we are in sync with many of your views," he wrote, adding three main points:

1) You can expect action from GIPSA (the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration) in the near future responding to USDA's responsibility to promote rules that level the playing field for livestock producers and to better define where unnecessary preferences are being granted to larger producers.

2) We will be announcing a program, "Know your farmer, know your food" that would promote linking local production more closely to local consumption. We intend to use some of the program funding in Rural Development for the development of an enhanced supply chain infrastructure so we can ramp up sales to larger consumers - schools, hospitals - in a community.

3) Through (stimulus and other funds) USDA is preparing to make the largest investment in rural development in my lifetime.

Tom Vilsack

It wasn't the only promising news for activists. In August, Vilsack and US Attorney General Eric Holder announced joint public workshops "to explore competition issues affecting the agriculture industry in the 21st Century and the appropriate role for antitrust and regulatory enforcement in that industry"

Among the leading issues are vertical integration and "concerns about the application of the antitrust laws to the agricultural industry." Other issues that might get on the agenda include "the impact of agriculture concentration on food costs, packer ownership of livestock before slaughter, market transparency, and increasing retailer concentration."

Finally, on October 15, 2009, EPA released its Clean Water Act Enforcement Action Plan, which targets CAFOs for more federal oversight. EPA will "pursue new strategies to enforce existing rules" on CAFOs, especially in areas "close to imperiled waters."

CAFOs have grown "larger and more densely located, placing more stress on waters in proximity to these locations," and they "result in a large pollution load to the environment." EPA vowed to "make progress in reducing violations and water pollution from these facilities."

Many received the plan with cautious optimism. "Obama has announced stepped up enforcement of the Clean Water Act, with specific reference to CAFOs, and it's making the meat industry quite nervous, of course," Nicolette Hahn-Niman, an environmental attorney who has successfully sued CAFOs, told me. "What I'd like to know is this: Will they now finally be forcing all CAFOs to get CWA permits? If not, they are not going nearly far enough."

And even if Obama takes on issues like water pollution, anti-competitive measures and boosting local food systems, many are still awaiting action on subsidies, a packer ban, antibiotic overuse, animal welfare, and stricter controls on air pollution.

In September, the Humane Society of the United States and several environmental and public health organizations filed a legal petition at EPA to regulate animal factory air pollution.

"Unregulated air pollution from massive factory farms has a devastating impact on human health and the environment," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for Animal Protection Litigation and Research at The HSUS. "The EPA should hold these big agribusiness corporations accountable for the enormous harm they are inflicting on local communities, independent family farmers, and the environment."

Meanwhile, Obama's rhetoric reflects a vast departure in thinking from that of his predecessor. But thoughts and words are meaningless without action. Anti-CAFO activists who worked hard to elect Barack Obama are waiting for their return investment. Their candidate never did deliver on his promised Natonal Rural Summit, it's true, but reformers are finally starting to see some promising signs from Washington.

And, as they will relentlessly remind the President, he and his CAFO pledges are firmly on the record.

Are animal factories here to stay? Whatever the Obama team decides to do -- or not do -- could have a huge impact on the way we raise food animals in America for decades to come.

Adapted from Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Hog, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment, to be released by St. Martin's Press in early 2010.

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