by Don Corrigan
There’s not always a lot of common ground between environmentalists and landowners in rural red state Missouri. Property owners and farmers want freedom to use the land as they wish, while environmentalists favor regulations to protect land and water in the public interest.
That divide between environmentalists and landowners is mirrored in the general partisan divide between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans in Missouri. One place where the divide is bridged and agreement can be found is on the ill effects of expanding CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).
Landowners worry that CAFOs, which are giant factory farms, will fill the surrounding air with the overwhelming odors from huge reservoirs of animal waste. They also worry that the pools of waste will breach, resulting in major contamination of groundwater as well as nearby lakes and streams.
Small family farms also feel threatened by the prospect of being taken over by well-financed corporate farm operations. These kill independent farms. Farmers worry their children may end up going to work as virtual sharecroppers for a giant company with headquarters out of state or even out of the country.
Family farmers and landowners can find allies in the fight against CAFOs in environmental groups, which share many of their concerns. Environmentalists point out that the large factory farms, and the resulting threat of contaminants, pose other concerns. Among the negative impacts from an environmental perspective are:
•CAFO emissions can include not just nauseating smells, but a noxious mix of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, allergens and various particulates.
•CAFO workplace conditions and animal management practices raise alarms. Animals are raised in extremely tight quarters and seldom see the light of day. CAFO employees do not fare much better.
•CAFO product quality also has come under scrutiny. The meat often comes from stressed animals that also are pumped with antibiotics and hormones.
All these concerns bring together disparate interest groups in the battle to rein in the growing economic and political lobbying power of CAFOs. Groups like the Missouri Farmers Union (MFU), Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCU), Missouri Votes Conservation (MVC) and Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE), all agree that the problem with CAFOS is not simply that they can stink too high heaven.
Northwest Missouri Battle
A CAFO battle that has been making headlines in Northwest Missouri near Chillicothe, involves plans for a massive hog farming operation. The rural residents of Livingston County have a battle cry: “Farms Not Factories.”
The planned CAFO would be a 10,500 pig concentrated animal feeding operation managed by United Hog Systems. Some residents have organized an opposition group called Friends of Poosey.
Poosey refers to the nearby Poosey Conservation Area, a 5,863-acre conservation area that residents champion. They worry the CAFO will cause damage to the water at Poosey’s Indian Creek Lake as well as to the wildlife.
Friends of Poosey also are worried about the stench and the threat to groundwater that would lower property values. Increased heavy traffic on roadways due to livestock transport and meat processing operations also is a concern.
According to Chillicothe area newspaper reports, United Hog wants a facility that would generate 8.3 million gallons of hog waste per year. That comes to 22,700 gallons per day. The operation includes three large buildings to house pigs and a 50-boot by 80-foot composting barn for dead hogs.
Livingston County delivered a lopsided majority of its votes to Republican Gov. Mike Parson and to Donald Trump in the 2020 elections. However, neither the governor nor the outgoing President have been very friendly to the Friends of Poosey.
Gov. Parson is clearly in the corner of major meat producers like United Hog. In 2019, Parson signed a Missouri Senate bill to stamp out about 20 health ordinances, including those in Livingstone County, that worked to keep out the growing number of CAFOS in the state.
The Trump Administration also has been hostile to the concerns of groups like the Friends of Poosey. Agencies under the administration have loosened or jettisoned many of the regulations on corporations in the agricultural sector, some actions through executive order.
Politics and Pandemic
The administration of incoming President Joseph Biden is expected to reverse many of the actions of the Trump Administration. Family farm advocates expect a number of actions that will have a major impact on factory farms.
Environmentalists and family farm interests would like to see an executive order early this year to direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to identify and catalog all the regulatory and enforcement exemptions bestowed on factory farm operations in the period 2016 to 2020.
The intent is to develop a regulatory action plan that could restore environmental, labor, animal welfare and climate accountability relevant to the factory farm industry.
A host of agricultural groups and environmental interests want to address items such as dangerous increases in line speeds at slaughterhouse plants, reduction in the number of animals that can be raised at any one CAFO facility, better inspection regimens for worker safety and for for humane treatment of confined animals.
A new impetus for regulatory limits on factory farms comes in the wake of a year of COVID-19 pandemic that has hit both animals and workers in these facilities. Meat processing plants also have come under scrutiny for high rates of infection and fatalities.
Scientists who study infectious diseases argue that the source of the next global pandemic may very well be a factory farm. Industrial scale hog farming – popular in the United States and China – provides the ideal environment for the generation and transmission of new pathogens, especially influenza viruses that infect people.
Small family farms that used to raise 150 to 1,000 pigs in outside pens are now being replaced by operations that average 14,000 animals. The pigs live in tight quarters with poor ventilation and manure transmission devices that mix and deposit feces to nearby reservoirs.
Scientists who are critical of National Pork Board standards have advocated the dismantling of many factory farm operations in light of the tens of thousands of human lives lost in the 2020 pandemic, never mind the trillions of dollars lost in the resulting economic catastrophe.
Bills introduced during the last administration to rein in factory farms went nowhere. Some proposals were introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, with support from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, and others.
Bills to regulate CAFOS received support from a coalition of groups that included small-scale farms, environmental activists, animal rights activists and economic populists. However, such coalitions have been no match for the lobbying dollars of the meat industry at the federal and state level. That could change in a Biden Administration.
(Don Corrigan of EE is the author of Environmental Missouri – Issues and Sustainability: What You Need To Know.)