Obama on factory farming: Something to crow about
When asked to write about President’s Obama’s leadership qualities on the hot-button issue of animal factory reform, I frankly expected to file a somewhat negative piece.
After all, back in 2008, Obama won Iowa partly due to his aggressive stance against confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms. But he hasn’t always lived up to the lofty ideals of those heady days.
“When I’m president, I’ll have a Department of Agriculture, not simply a department of agribusiness!” Obama vowed to roaring crowds in small-town Iowa. The candidate’s white paper on Iowa factory farms said, “CAFOs pose significant threats to air and water quality,” and added: “Rather than letting CAFOs off the hook, Obama believes they should be subject to the requirements of the Clean Air Act and Superfund just as any other polluter.”
Today, conventional wisdom in anti-CAFO circles holds that Obama’s record — as opposed to his soaring rhetoric — has come up short, a heap of ignored pledges and reneged promises.
But as I began delving into Obama’s recent record on factory farms, and spoke with administration officials about reining in the more excessive CAFO excesses, the more I realized the administration is, in fact, taking serious measures to address the pollution and market dominance brought about by industrial animal production.
The problem is, Obama and his team are apparently not very able — or not very willing — to advertise just how aggressive they’ve become. Which begs the question: What good is leadership if you don’t brag about it?
Obama should go out of his way to showcase his leadership in confronting the pollution and economic consolidation of animal factory farming. Doing so is not only sound policy; it might prove politically popular.
As candidate, Obama vowed his support, among other things, for:
• Capping farm-income eligibility for subsidies at $500,000
• Banning large-scale farms from breaking up into smaller “paper corporations” to get around subsidy limits
• Enacting a “packer ban” to halt the anti-competitive practice that allows slaughterhouse companies to own the animals they slaughter
• Confronting other anti-competitive biases in the animal agriculture marketplace
• Cracking down on air and water pollution from animal factory farms
• Forcing animal factories to adopt and follow stringent “manure management” plans
• Banning the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics as growth-promoters
• Supporting “local control” that allows counties to decide whether or not they want CAFOs in their area
• Linking local food production to local food consumption
• Convening a “National Rural Summit” within 100 days of taking office, in part to address the impact of Agribusiness mega-monopolies on small and medium-sized family farms.
Breathtaking, isn’t it? The laundry list inspired activists at the time, but now has them lamenting those items that Obama has NOT accomplished. To date, there’s been little action on a packer ban, anti-biotic reform, or local control. And the first 100 days came and went without the promised rural summit.
Even more dispiriting, anti-CAFO advocates complain, was the administration’s weak leadership on farm subsidies, which tend to benefit the largest producers over smaller ones.
Obama has twice proposed capping income eligibility in the FY2010 and FY2011 Federal budgets, only to sit back while those reforms were eviscerated by farm-state Democrats. And, activists bemoan, he reversed his own position on banning CAFOs from breaking up into “paper farms,” to get around existing income limits.
So what kind of leadership, skeptics ask, is that?
In fact, Obama has begun fulfilling his CAFO-reform promises in more ways than most people realize. It’s a record of which he should be proud.
So far, EPA has proposed rules to enforce factory-farm compliance with discharge regulations under the Clean Water Act and is obliging reluctant states to comply with federal water rules. It’s also begun to combat damaging nutrient levels in Chesapeake Bay, will bring more Delmarva chicken operations under federal CAFO rules, and has named animal waste runoff a “priority” target for federal enforcement.
At USDA, some farm subsidy loopholes are being closed, including one allowing absentee owners to collect on property they do not personally manage, and another that links to IRS data to determine individual income eligibility (something that helps stem the “paper farm” problem, officials say).
And just this month, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder held the first of five promised hearings on competition in agriculture. “One of the greatest threats to our economy is the erosion of free competition in our markets,” Holder proclaimed. “And we’ve learned that some [farmers] believe the competitive environment may be, at least in part, to blame.”
USDA has also announced new transparency rules for loans to contract poultry growers, which will also be extended to pork growers; launched the “Know Your Farmer” program to link local producers and consumers; increased funding for conservation efforts; tabled a federal animal identification program too onerous for small farmers; and rewritten organic meat-and-dairy rules to require that animals must pasture-graze at least 120 days-per-year and receive at least 30% of their dry food intake from pasture.
Also this month, a USDA official told me the administration will soon announce its long-promised “National Rural Summit.”
Not all of the rural agenda has been addressed. But assuming that Obama wants recognition for his leadership, one would expect him to tout these achievements a bit louder. Opponents have surely taken notice. Why not rally the proponents as well?