THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Future of Factory Farming: Barack Obama and the "Rural Agenda"

Part 1 - Campaign Pledges

Today, most Americans get their meat, dairy and eggs from hyper-productive, industrialized, anonymous "confined animal feeding operations" (CAFOs) located hundreds or thousands of miles away from their home. Will it always be this way?

No one can predict the future -- especially when it comes to such a complex, emotional and volatile issue as how our food is produced. No one can know exactly what the typical American animal farm will look like in 10 or 20 years: Whether we will have all-CAFOs, all-the-time; a complete return to small, diversified, localized food production; or some type of patchwork hybrid in between.

Many of the people profiled in my upcoming book, Animal Factory -- from which this article was adapted -- would like to see CAFOs fade away entirely, in the obsolete manner of the 8-track tape player, ditto machine, or other clunky, outdated technologies we used to consider indispensable. But I am not convinced that is going to happen any time soon.

My one prediction is that animal factory operators -- under pressure from consumers, voters, environmentalists, community activists, regulators, politicians, scientists, journalists, animal welfare advocates, and even celebrities -- will continue to reform their operations by applying new technologies to help make their CAFOs less objectionable to their neighbors and the general public.

But that doesn't mean they will reform themselves into universal acceptance, either.

What does the future hold for factory farming? Much of that answer lies with the Obama administration, and especially his appointees to the USDA and EPA.

Barack Obama was elected on a platform that boasted an impressive "Rural Agenda," rich with promises to deliver stiffer controls on air and water pollution coming from CAFOs. He also vowed to reform the current system of corporatized food production, to allow for fair and free competition among smaller farmers. He pledged to limit federal subsidies and curb the excesses of "vertical integration," in which large conglomerates control each aspect of animal production and marketing -- everything from conception-to-casserole.

Obama's CAFO-reform agenda was carefully crafted with academic ammunition culled from at least two major papers on animal factories, both of which clearly informed the new president's rural blueprint for change -- change that has yet to be realized.

In November, 2006, Environmental Health Perspectives published the series, "Environmental Health Impacts of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations," and it made one thing exceedingly clear: Most independent scientists agree that CAFOs cause pollution and hurt communities. The challenge is to find ways to mitigate those harmful effects.

"Traditional crop-livestock farms were balanced," the authors concurred, "in that livestock manure supplied nutrients to grow the crops to feed those livestock." But in industrialized settings, nutrients from feed are drawn in from a wide area to a single concentrated landmass, "resulting in soil accumulation and runoff of phosphorus, nitrogen, and other pollutants," and pollution of the air and water.

A serious lack of oversight is the main problem: "The industrialization of livestock production over the past three decades has not been accompanied by commensurate modernization of regulations to protect the health of the public, or natural public-trust resources," the scientists warned.

Then, in April, 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production released its own scathing indictment on CAFOs. It was no exaggeration to label the Pew report a slam-dunk for the anti-animal factory forces.

"Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America" was probably industry's worst dream materialized. The paper had one stark, bottom-line message: CAFOs pose "unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals," a press release from the Pew Commission said.

"Commissioners have determined that the negative effects of the system are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to ignore," the statement continued. "Significant changes must be implemented and must start now."

The Commission issued a number of recommendations -- all of which were cheered by activists, and roundly booed by industry. Chief among them were: Phase out non-therapeutic antibiotics; improve disease monitoring and tracking; improve waste regulations; phase out intensive confinement; increase competition in the livestock market; and improve animal welfare.

But Obama was also hearing directly from small farmers and rural residents, who desperately sought a candidate who would help them reign in the virtually unchecked growth of CAFOs in their states. It all began in Iowa, the caucus state.

In January of 2007, Chris Petersen, a hog farmer, President of the Iowa Farmers Union, and a leading rural activist, joined a gaggle of Democrats to meet with Obama himself. The group was tiny: Conventional wisdom held that Hillary Clinton would win handily in this first, critical round of voting.

But Chris was impressed with the newcomer, who clearly spoke like someone from an agricultural state, even if he was a Chicagoan. Obama talked about his CAFO votes in the Illinois State Senate, including bills to impose stricter limits on illegal water discharges and emissions of nitrogen, phosphorous, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.

Chris chimed in. "Mr. Obama," he said, "I think you need to tackle this problem from the top down, and by that I mean you need new antitrust and competition laws. And you need to establish complete transparency in the marketplace."

In animal agriculture, the meat processor controls all the cards, the pig farmer told the future President. Processing is the all-important gate between producer and consumer. The fewer the processors, the more narrow the gate; and whoever controls the gate, controls the system and the flow of goods through it. Some companies own both the animals and the processing plants, and wield enormous and unfair advantage over independent producers in their area.

Without access to processing, an animal has no market value.

Plainspoken Chris pleaded with Obama for help in creating a national "packer ban" -- to prohibit processing companies from owning the animals they slaughter. "This is real Teddy Roosevelt stuff," he said. "You know, 'split 'em up and make 'em compete.' If you tackle this from the top down, many of the problems -- environmental, rural, jobs, pollution, food safety -- will go away."

Then, in November of 2007, Chris helped organize the "National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life" in Des Moines. Barack Obama wowed the crowd, and so did John Edwards. And it wasn't just their personal charisma and passion -- something that seemed to elude Clinton, (who spoke on a webcam). Obama called for a $250,000 dollar limit on farm subsidies and vowed to reform USDA. "When I'm President, I'll have a department of agriculture, not simply a department of agri-business," he said to roaring approval. "Large corporate hog polluters should be required to pay for their own pollution -- and not be bailed out at the taxpayer's expense!"

The crowd ate it up; Obama flashed his famous grin. And then he hit a homer, as far as Iowa Democrats in the room were concerned. If elected, Obama promised, he would convene a major national summit on rural issues within 100 days of taking office.

In the end, Obama and Edwards won the day. They both called for local control, stricter pollution regulations for CAFOs, a packer ban, a cap on farm subsidies, new antitrust and transparency laws, and the return of production decisions to farmers who own the land.

As for Clinton, she never really caught on among the anti-CAFO faithful. The last straw for many came in December, when she named a recent former head of the National Pork Producers Council, Joy Philippi, as co-chair of "Rural Americans for Hillary."

Indeed, one could argue that Hillary Clinton might have won the nomination if she had taken a more aggressive stance against CAFOs before the caucuses. Philippi cost Clinton votes she badly needed in rural precincts to make the vote close statewide. Meanwhile, voters started drifting away from Edwards in the final week, possibly out of candidate fatigue. Ascendant Obama, however, made significant inroads among anti-CAFO voters who were deserting Edwards -- and now Clinton -- in large numbers.

Ten months later, Obama was elected with 53 percent of the vote, winning such CAFO-heavy states as Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and, most surprising of all, conservative North Carolina and deep-red Indiana.

Across the country, rural activists held their breath and waited for the new president to keep the campaign pledges that helped him win so much support in the heartland.

Tomorrow: Part Two - White House Realities

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.