May 29, 2018

The Newly Passed FARM Act Makes Unreported Farm Pollutants Legal Again

Lacey Gaechter

Lacey Gaechter

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

This post is the first in a series—Connecting Agriculture Policy to Your Health—by CLF-Lerner Fellow Lacey Gaechter.

Last year the US District Court of Appeals took a huge step forward to protect public health from pollutants released by industrial-scale livestock facilities. This March, however, Congress negated the Court’s ruling when it passed the FARM Act. It was easy to miss this undermining of the 2017 decision since Congress rolled the FARM Act into the 2018 Omnibus Spending Bill as a rider.

What is the FARM Act?

The federal Fair Agriculture Reporting Method (FARM) Act is a formal, legislatively guaranteed exemption for industrial-scale livestock producers to the laws requiring other industries to report releases of hazardous materials. Because hazardous materials are hazardous whether they come from the animal agriculture industry or the petrochemical industry, the Court of Appeals ruled in April 2017 that livestock producers needed to be held to the same standards. (The two laws that require industries to report the release of large quantities of pollutants are the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, known as EPCRA; EPCRA is such a moderate law that President Ronald Reagan signed it into law.)

On the heels of the Court ruling, the freshly passed FARM Act now upholds the rules-don’t-apply-to-us situation for industrial agriculture. In other words, while industries such as the auto industry or the paint industry must, under CERCLA and EPCRA, tell the EPA about which hazardous materials and in what quantity they’re releasing into the environment, the agriculture industry does not have to.

And this is important, because the industrial-scale livestock industry releases hazardous materials into the environment on a regular basis.

There are hazardous materials created by animal agriculture?

The EPA calls these facilities CAFOs – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations consisting of at least 1,000 head of cattle for meat, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs, 125,000 chickens for meat, or 82,000 laying hens. Confining this magnitude of animals in a relatively small area causes nutrients (from animal poop and pee) to concentrate to the extent that they become toxic. In 2010, the National Boards of Health reported that hydrogen sulfide and ammonia – both substances covered by CERCLA and EPCRA reporting requirements—were two of the most common chemicals released into air, water, and soil from CAFOs. Hydrogen sulfide and ammonia are both natural byproducts of animal waste and are not harmful if applied to land in the right concentrations. Ammonia, in fact, is a rich source of nitrogen – a nutrient that most crops need to grow. Unfortunately, at concentrations generated by CAFOs, both hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen from ammonia become hazardous.

Who Is Harmed by the FARM Act?

If you live near a CAFO, you are likely all too aware of the health hazards emanating therefrom. Other things being equal, the closer you live to a CAFO, the more likely you are to contract asthma and/or other respiratory diseases. As noted above, ammonia is a common air pollutant from CAFOs and specifically causes “chemical burns to the respiratory tract” and/ or “chronic lung disease” in some people. Airborne exposure to hydrogen sulfide – another common pollutant released form animal agriculture facilities – can lead to loss of sense of smell and/or inflammatory respiratory diseases, including death.

If your water source is near a CAFO, you are also more likely to drink water contaminated by ammonia, among other substances. The real problem with high levels of ammonia in your water is high levels of nitrates, a by-product of ammonia. Consuming too many nitrates can lead to problems in your blood. In infants and children this problem is called blue baby syndrome because a lack of sufficient oxygen in the blood causes a blue instead of pink coloration of the skin. Additional adverse health effects include cancer, thyroid problems, birth defects and other reproductive problems.

In summary, it’s really best not to breathe air or drink water that interacts with large animal agriculture facilities – especially if you’re pregnant. The problem is that many people have no choice but to do so. Of course, no one is more exposed to the hazards of CAFOs than farmers and farm workers, and they do indeed bear the brunt of the health impacts described above.

Who Benefits from the FARM Act?

Unfortunately, exposure to hazardous substances is only one of many risks that US farmers are forced to accept in order to remain viable in a market with razor thin profit margins. They are part of the approximately 1,000,000 animal producers competing for contracts with roughly 40,000 food wholesalers and/or 30,000 food manufacturers. That’s two orders of magnitude more farmers than firms to buy their products, which goes a long way toward explaining why raising animals for food in the United States is so financially challenging. Under these conditions, wholesalers and food manufacturers – or food retailers to whom they are beholden – have the power to set prices and production standards.

Some people—namely those supporting the FARM Act—may argue that all “consumers” (you know, people) benefit from the exemption because a reduced reporting burden on farmers translates into lower food prices. And while it’s true that lower food prices would benefit those who are financially strapped, the evidence is stronger that what cheap food has really done is create profit for the sectors in between farmers and eaters, the “middle men,” including food manufacturers and retailers.

Supporters of the FARM Act will tell us that both farmers and consumers benefit from the FARM Act, but the reality is that food manufacturers and retailers benefit the most. Meanwhile, along with all that food marketing, we get nitrates in our drinking water.

So, is the FARM Act really that bad for our health?

For those of us living near a CAFO, it is certainly a missed opportunity to at least gain an understanding of what we are being exposed to. For everyone else, the FARM Act is only as bad as anything that allows “large quantities of hazardous materials” to enter our environment unrecorded and unaddressed.

The real problem, however, is a food system that forces us to choose between our immediate health and supporting our farmers. It forces farmers themselves to choose between their physical health and their financial viability.

The FARM Act allows this system to continue unchecked, and that fact does, indeed, make it bad for our health.

For a more in-depth discussion and references, find the PDF version of this blogpost here.

“Median farm income” table retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-household-well-being/farm-household-income-historical/

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