What Does the Farm Bureau Have to Hide?
By Sarah Borron
Last week, Food & Water Watch filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the agency’s failure to collect basic information on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), such as owner name, location, and number and type of animals. There are many problems with EPA’s regulation of industrial livestock facilities, and lack of information stands in the way of addressing pollution from this industry. Today, Food & Water Watch, along with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Environmental Integrity Project, filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Pork Producers Council filed against EPA to keep CAFO records private. The industry groups want to prevent EPA from releasing data related to factory farms and their pollution under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In supporting the case, AFBF president Bob Stallman proclaims, “Farm Bureau is not only standing up for farmers in this case, we are standing up for all citizens, who shouldn’t have their personal information publicly disseminated by their government.” But there’s a difference between a CAFO and a typical private home: tens or hundreds of thousands of livestock and vast quantities of manure. Most private citizens utilize wastewater treatment facilities to manage their waste, but most CAFOs store manure on-site and later apply it to farmland. In areas with many CAFOs, the amount of waste available far exceeds the local need for fertilizer. There’s simply too much waste, and it needs to be better regulated.
Many studies have found that CAFO waste contaminates nearby bodies of water with numerous pollutants, including nitrogen, phosphorus, hormones, antibiotics and pathogens. According to the Government Accountability Office, “manure and wastewater from animal feeding operations can adversely impact water quality through surface runoff and erosion, direct discharges to surface water, spills and other dry-weather discharges, and leaching into the soil and groundwater.”
The AFBF and meat industry claims that listing CAFO locations will lead to harassment of CAFO operators simply do not bear out in real life, as several states already provide such data, including addresses and maps of CAFOs on the Internet. In a written response to Congressional questions at an oversight hearing, the EPA noted that, “EPA is not aware of instances where such publicly available information has put CAFO owners and operators at risk.”
In requesting that the locations of CAFOs be kept private, AFBF is essentially asking for special treatment. Most home-based businesses are subject to some form of regulation and public transparency, and certainly other industries that pollute or have the potential to pollute face far more regulation than CAFOs do now. (See the Toxic Release Inventory Explorer as an example of public transparency about polluting facilities.)
AFBF and the meat industry are trying to make the public and policymakers miss the point: CAFOs discharge pollutants and they should be treated like any other polluting facility under the Clean Water Act. Collecting and releasing this data should not be controversial, but is simply a necessary and appropriate step in the process of reducing pollution from CAFOs.