Factory Farms and Flawed Economics

by Alanna Hartzok

During my 2014 campaign for US Congress I became aware of “person/planet hot spots” where local people where fighting back against corporations engaged in fracking and industrial agriculture. Corporate power tromping on human and environmental rights, a dynamic well known to third world countries and Indian reservations, was becoming a reality in Pennsylvania.

In northern Bedford County, animals died and people sickened when a natural gas compression station leaked gas and pollutants into air and water. Neither the national Environmental Protection Agency nor Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection came to aid or defend community members despite numerous cries for help.

When the people of Grant Township, Indiana County, heard about a natural gas company’s plans to store toxic, chemical-laden fracking waste water in a deep well in their small rural community they took action. Such wells are known to have a high likelihood of cracking and seepage with consequent ground water contamination — which could make Grant Township virtually uninhabitable. Grassroots leaders rallied the community and township supervisors to push back the corporate plan. So far they have succeeded and in the process have become the first governing body in the US to enact a community ordinance vesting an inherent right to protection directly in Nature herself, similar to Ecuador’s Rights of Mother Earth Constitution.

There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still  surrounds us. — Edward O. Wilson

There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still
surrounds us. — Edward O. Wilson

A third situation was that of Ayr Township in Fulton County, where a determined group of residents were fighting back an industrial agriculture corporation’s plans to develop a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) housing 8,000 breeding sows each year. Manure from this facility could seriously contaminate streams and ground water. A drastic reduction of air quality was another threat. As with the other two crisis points, local citizens had to raise their own legal funds and rely on their own internal resources.

Alarmed by these battles happening in my region of Pennsylvania, I put together a team to organize a public forum. We decided to focus specifically on the threats posed by the growing number of chicken and swine CAFOs in Franklin and Fulton counties. Under the auspices of the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wilson College we hosted the Factory Farm Forum on January 30, 2016, with twelve speakers and around 140 community members in attendance.

This article describes what we learned about the dangers and threats of industrial agriculture and how both individual actions and taxation policy reform can help us change course and establish sustainable, “triple bottom line” food systems that serve people and planet — not just a few corporations.

cafoMaria Payen, of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, told us that soon after a massive CAFO moved beside her family’s home, her young son began to get severe rashes all over his body. The odors from the CAFO were so bad that sometimes they could not engage in outdoor activities. The family had to move elsewhere. They have not been able to sell their former residence. Maria now helps communities fight the devastating health, environmental, and economic impacts of industrial agriculture.

Brent Kim, the Program Officer at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, presented evidence of significant increases in human infections from swine waste. Antibiotics given to animals in CAFOs are creating antibiotic resistant bacteria, “superbugs” that adapt and grow when antibiotics try to kill them. Gases and airborne particulates also caused increased respiratory problems.

CAFOs are most often vertically integrated. While the farmer provides labor, owns the animal facilities (usually owing a large amount of debt) and is exposed to wastes, carcasses, and other health hazards, just a handful of companies own the animals, controls feed inputs, and owns the feed mills and processing plants. Though farmers are often not told what is in the feed, they are responsible for a number of potential liabilities.

Four companies (Cargill, JBS, National Beef, Tyson) control 83% of beef production; four control 63% of hog production (Cargill, JBS, Smithfield, Tyson); and four control 53% of broiler chicken production (Tyson, Purdue, JBS, Smithfield Foods). Thus, just six companies control well over half of the main sources of meat in the American diet.

Rev. Alice M. Meloy, now over 80 years old, led a movement in the 1990s against CAFOs in Franklin County’s Fannett Township, where her roots go back 250 years. She described the experiences of members of her community in a letter to Pennsylvania officials:

Manure was sprayed on frozen fields and ran over roads and into streams; the pollution of wells and streams (we have no public water supply) was so serious that citizens had to drink bottled water. The massive water consumption of factory farms made local family farmers have to dig deeper wells. Odors filled our homes, shops and lungs, so intense that our eyes stung and some had trouble breathing. Our ability to enjoy the outdoors was compromised and our property and quality of life was seriously devalued.

Rev. Meloy also expressed concern about growing antibiotic resistance in human pathogens due to high antibiotic use in factory farming — and increased risks of cancer and other health problems due to hormones and drugs used to produce rapid growth of factory farm animals.

Although Rev. Meloy managed to decrease the number of CAFOs
permitted in her township, factory farms have been steadily increasing throughout Pennsylvania’s rural counties. She concluded

Family farms have been fundamental to the fabric of our rural communities, towns and country. They nurture a strong sense of values, concern for the land, curiosity, flexibility, creative thinking and problem solving skills, not to mention common sense.These are traits we can ill afford to lose and that are fundamental to our democracy.

The importance of small farming in Pennsylvania’s history

Small family farms and decentralized government were very important to Pennsylvania from the beginning of European settlement. Today, Pennsylvania has more incorporated municipalities than any other state in the US. The state’s founder, William Penn (1644-1718), was well-known for his pacifism and his commitment to freedom of religion. However, few realize the importance he placed on small farms as a key to liberty. Voltaire (1694-1778) praised Pennsylvania as the only government in the world at the time that was responsible to the people and respectful of minority rights.

Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) from south central Pennsylvania, who was Speaker of the House for many years, was a radical abolitionist and a major proponent of land reform (“40 acres and a mule”) during Reconstruction. “No people will ever be republican in spirit and practice where a few own immense manors and the masses are landless,” said Stevens. “Small independent landholders are the support and guardians of republican liberty.”

Looking back thousands of years, societies that had fair land tenure and justice in land access, such as the Vedic culture in the Indus River Valley, were balanced and harmonic; when control of land concentrated into the hands of a few there emerged conditions of wealth inequality, poverty, conflict and war.

In his book Poison Spring, Evaggelos Vallianotos says

In the natural world, a toxin may last for a long time, slowly moving into the land, spreading its deleterious effects and death to microorganisms vital for carrying nutrients taken up by crops. In the political world, corruption moves slowly and cuts deep into our democracy, giving tremendous advantage to the lobbyists and their paymasters with an undemocratic vision of America.

cutefarmerWhat practical steps can we take, now, to move “back to the future” of sustainable agriculture? There are several things many of us can do immediately. We can (1) buy from community supported agriculture (CSAs) and direct farmer-to-consumer local markets; (2) eat less meat, of higher quality, by purchasing locally pastured poultry and humanely raised animals; (3) turn backyards into organic mini-farms; (4) monitor and learn how to check water quality and other environmental indicators and (5) report violations to local
community courts.

Thomas Jefferson recognized that the common law jury system is the most basic and powerful element of democracy. For decades federal court decisions have chipped away at the right to take polluters directly to court; instead, we have to wait on bureaucratic agencies to do their jobs. Reinstating and reinforcing this right could play an important role in moving towards sustainable agriculture and a fair economy. A complementary approach is to implement home rule for our townships and municipalities in order to strengthen local control.

My Forum presentation, titled “Harnessing Tax & Other Policy Incentives to Encourage Sustainable Agriculture,” states that several of the problems of factory farming have their origin in gross wealth and power inequality stemming from unjust and misaligned systems of land tenure, taxation and banking policy. I consider this situation to be a national emergency, undermining democratic rule.

The Union of Concerned Scientists Food and Environment Program tells us that

The US government spends billions of dollars each year to subsidize crops used to produce processed foods and sugary drinks — the same foods the USDA’s nutritional guidelines tell us to eat less of. This policy failure is contributing to a massive and costly public health crisis, as rates of chronic, diet-related diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease have shot up — even, increasingly, among children. And the same policies that encourage unhealthy food production also support an outdated, unsustainable system of industrial agriculture, which has damaging impacts on soil, air, water, human health, and rural economies.

Our system of taxation encourages land speculation and hoarding. An analysis published by CNBC in 2012 indicated that 100 private landowners in the US control more than 30 million acres, or 2% of America’s land mass. According to The Land Report magazine, media billionaire John Malone owns an estimated 2.2 million acres, an area about three times the size of Rhode Island. Ted Turner, another media billionaire, also owns around two million acres of land, half in New Mexico, with holdings in ten other states.

When so few enclose so much of the commons, and so much valuable land is held out of productive use, the cost of agricultural land prohibits land access for young people who would like to have small farms. The more debt burden incurred to purchase land, the harder it is to make a living on a small farm. Nor do small family farms receive the agricultural subsidies given to large scale corporate agriculture. Agribusinesses often engage in “tax loss farming” whereby profits in some forms of production, which may be oil or other resource extraction, are written off against loses in agriculture resulting in zero taxes paid.

A vital precedent in California

As Theodore Roszak wrote in his book Person/Planet, “Land reform is the undiscovered revolution in American politics.” Combining this perspective with Thomas Paine’s policy prescription that “Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds,” we now have the template an effective tax reform that can enable affordable land access for small farm sustainable agriculture. We even have an historical example with the Wright Act and how it created a “natural land reform” in California.

After one California rancher who owned one million acres of land won full rights to the water of the Kern River (1886), citizens protested, organized, and then passed the Wright Act, legislation permitting local irrigation districts to build dams and canals and other infrastructure to be funded by bonds paid off by land rent.

In ten years, the Central Valley was transformed into over 7,000 independent farms. The Wright Act was amended to mandate the total exemption of improvements from the tax base. Irrigation Districts included (and taxed) land that was used not only for farming but also for residence and commerce within townships. Steadily the Irrigation Districts evolved to provide reclamation, recreation, and electric power. The formerly semi-arid plains of the San Joaquin Valley became one of the most productive agricultural areas on the planet.

The People have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all of the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.    —Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I, Section 27

The People have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the
preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all of the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
—Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I, Section 27

Under the Wright Act, first lien on the land was held by the irrigation districts; the banks held second place. After three efforts to have the Supreme Court annul the Wright Act, the Bank of America finally succeeded. Now taxpayers throughout the United States fund irrigation systems which mainly benefit large agribusinesses. Thus the need for a two-pronged approach for macroeconomic restructuring that ideally would combine BOTH the removal of taxes from labor and production while collecting the full land rent AND the establishment of public banks and monetary systems that issue money directly not as now, which is primarily by mortgage debt.

Those who care about the health, happiness and well-being of all and who understand our connectedness to plants, soil organisms, insects, and animals — indeed all of life — must grasp the importance of putting in place tax policy that creates healthy incentives for these sustainable outcomes. Our current tax and financial systems do the opposite. A public finance policy approach that removes the tax burden from labor and productive capital and collects the “ground rent” based on land value would do much to help us build a “triple-win world” of human rights, environmental protection and thriving economies that work for everyone.

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