December 18, 2009

What is a family farm?

Rebecca Klein

Rebecca Klein

Program Officer, Food System Policy Program

Center for a Livable Future

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Capitol Hill briefing, yesterday, on Industrial Animal Farms and Worker Health and Safety was informative and compelling. It was also contentious. While Dr. Steven Wing, University of North Carolina epidemiologist and environmental justice expert, discussed the transformation of agricultural practices over the last few decades he was interrupted by a Congressional staffer who took issue with Wing’s statement that many of the family farms are disappearing and being replaced by industrial food animal operations. The interruption was brief, but the issue of “family farms” was raised again during the question and answer session.

Several briefing attendees claimed that their families had owned farming operations for generations, some of whom now run confinement livestock operations, also known as industrial food animal production (IFAP) facilities. Tensions grew when two attendees boisterously expressed their beliefs that even though many family farmers have shifted their farming practices to industrial models that they are still technically running family farms.

While those producers may own the land and the (often times mortgaged) buildings in which the animals live, they no longer own the animals. Large corporations like Smithfield or Tyson contract farmers to house and feed their animals. Panelists made it clear these “family famers” no longer decide how, what, or when the animals are fed or raised. They sign strict contracts with these large corporations, that leave them little leeway to use any knowledge that may have been passed down by their parents or grandparents. The companies with whom they contract are looking for a uniform product, so the companies own the animals, determine what they will be fed-which usually includes antibiotics at nontherapeutic doses. Once the animals are large enough, the company picks them up for processing, leaving behind the carcasses and the waste for the producer to deal with.

Most industrial hog or dairy operations store the waste in large lagoons near the buildings housing the animals periodically emptying  them and transporting the contents to fields to spray as fertilizer on crops. Manure can be one of nature’s best fertilizers when applied in moderation-say as a cow munches on the grass and leaves some behind. However, the contents of these lagoons are not simply manure and urine, they can contain residues of antibiotics and hormones and even heavy metals .  The contents are often sprayed on fields in quantities much larger than the plants need to grow, and often so much is sprayed that it runs off, polluting nearby waterways and/or sinking into the earth contaminating ground water that many people depend on to feed their wells.

So, yes, some families are still on the land their ancestors farmed. And it is important to remember that these are hard working people who need to make a living and are doing what they believe is right. They are producing a lot of meat that becomes available for a low dollar price. Unfortunately, the health and environmental costs of such production are quite high.

The panelists did an excellent job outlining the human health threats of antibiotic resistance and how IFAP contributes to this resistance-a topic that has been discussed on this blog before, see here and here. Since they’ve been covered before, I’ll skip the details and encourage you to read some of the past posts about antibiotics and food animal production-after which, you may agree with former Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production Vice Chair and veterinarian Dr. Michael Blackwell’s statement yesterday that, “If someone looks you in the eye and says this is not a problem, that is a flat out lie.”

Each presenter brought a unique angle to this important issue. Dr. Tara Smith, assistant professor and researcher at University of Iowa College of Public Health, emphasized that antibiotic resistance is an issue that, “needs to be viewed from a one health perspective”-implicating that human, animal and environmental health are all connected. (See here for more on the One Health Commission, an effort to address animal, human and environmental health simultaneously-A great idea that could go a lot further in terms of addressing antibiotic resistance.) 

Dr. Blackwell reiterated the call he made during the CLF sponsored briefing to ensure that only trained, licensed veterinarians are able to administer antibiotics to livestock. Currently, any producer can buy certain antibiotics-many of which are added directly to animal feed as shown in the picture of Bob Martin holding a bag from animal feed containing antibiotics. photo

Blackwell spoke of the importance of reversing Congress’ 1977 decision to prevent FDA from restricting nontherapeutic use of antibiotics, and ensure that FDA can address this issue. He strongly emphasized that, “without legislative action, FDA is not going to be able to protect you or your loved ones.” Blackwell also candidly addressed a topic that is often left as the elephant in the room. He reminded the audience that, we need to “recognize that there are competing interests and agriculture is not historic in addressing public health first…the Department of Agriculture is not a public health agency.”

 The antibiotic resistant infections are not the only negative health effects of IFAP operations. Dr. Wing discussed how doctor diagnosed asthma and asthma-like symptoms are commonly reported in the communities he studies. He also pointed out that many of these operations exist in areas where some of the poorest North Carolinians live, many of whom do not have access to health care and/or cannot afford health insurance, as such, many health impacts of IFAP go undocumented because people cannot seek care, thus they are never diagnosed.

Ms. Dothula Baron-Hall and Mr. Devon Hall gave powerful presentations about how communities are affected by IFAP and the actions some North Carolina residents are taking to protect their health and community. The group demonstrated at the state capitol by bringing a scale model of a confinement operation and manure lagoon-with actual animal waste to fill it. They were told by the security guard that they’d be fined tens of thousands of dollars if they got one drop of the stuff, which he called “toxic waste” on the state’s property. Baron-Hall commented on the irony of the manure lagoon’s contents being termed ‘toxic waste’ when at the state capitol and ‘fertilizer’ when sprayed on fields near hundreds of NC residents’ homes. Often the smell is so bad that people don’t go outside and can’t open their windows for ventilation.

While these residents might prefer to live where they could have a cook-out or play outside with their children, most cannot afford to move. And even if they could, is it ethical to create conditions that essentially force people out of their homes and communities? Both residents near IFAP operations and producers have little choice.  One staffer argued that if producers didn’t want to sign a contract, they didn’t have too. The panelists’ reply was once a grower has borrowed the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to build the barns to produce in the way the agribusinesses require of their growers, there is no other way to continue earning an income (that may or may not ever be enough to pay back the loans). And, these companies are often the only market in the area for a producers’ product. While they may not have to sign a contract if they don’t want to, they also have to make a living. So, the old adage of “get big, or get out” remains the only option in many of these communities.

~Rebecca Klein

One Comment

  1. While I agree with you in general I do find your statement:

    While those producers may own the land and the (often times mortgaged) buildings

    to be rather ironic. Most, no make that almost all, home owners have a mortgage on their home. Why should a farm be any different. After all, our home is here too. Your wording makes it look like you are grasping at straws from a position of weakness. Stick with your strengths.

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