Will Big Ag Keep Getting a Pass Under the Biden Administration?

Trump’s terrible rules that should never have been implemented are being reviewed and overhauled — except for two that will pain Big Ag if removed. Why are they being quietly continued?

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Food System

by Tarah Heinzen

The Biden Administration is off to a strong start reviewing and — all signs indicate — preparing to rescind scores of devastating Trump administration rollbacks to environmental, consumer, and public health protections. Michael Regan has been confirmed to lead the EPA, and advocates hope he will tackle undoing the damage of the past four years and implementing bold new policies to address pollution, climate change, and environmental injustice with unprecedented urgency. But, at least so far, this administration is already echoing prior ones on both sides of the political aisle in one critical way – special treatment of agribusiness. Two key Trump handouts to Big Ag have been left off of the Biden administration’s priority list for terrible rules to get rid of. 

Two rules being left in place allow de-regulation of factory farms and meat companies

Factory farms get a pass from reporting emissions

In 2017, environmental groups won a critical fight for factory farm transparency when a federal court struck down a rule exempting factory farms from having to report the toxic air emissions they spew into rural communities. This illegal rule – a holdover from the last days of the George W. Bush administration – had been left on the books throughout the entire Obama administration despite promises that the Obama EPA would consider changing course. 

But the win was fleeting because the Trump EPA quickly acted at the behest of Big Ag to initiate yet another exemption rule with a new (but also unlawful) justification. Food & Water Watch and allies are now in court challenging the rule in an effort to at long last force factory farms to disclose their dangerous air pollution. 

Slaughterhouses get to inspect themselves — at a dangerous speed

The Trump administration also continued prior administrations’ efforts to deregulate slaughterhouses. They enacted a rule that allowed meat companies to speed up hog slaughter lines and allow companies to police themselves with fewer USDA inspectors on the line, despite obvious risks to workers, food safety, and animal welfare. Food & Water Watch is leading one of the legal challenges to the rule, which is moving forward despite government efforts to kick us out of court.  

It’s past time to regulate Big Ag like other polluting industries

We will continue these fights – but we shouldn’t have to. President Biden’s day one Executive Order required agencies to consider reviewing and rescinding all Trump environmental and public health actions. Indeed, the Department of Justice has sought to pause many ongoing legal challenges to Trump’s rollbacks while Biden’s agencies consider new rules that would make much of these ongoing court fights unnecessary. In these two lawsuits seeking accountability for Big Ag, however, DOJ has been conspicuously silent. 

Special treatment for Big Ag is nothing new – under President Obama, EPA not only left Bush’s illegal factory farm air pollution reporting rule in place but also capitulated to industry demands in scrapping a rule for factory farm water pollution transparency and abandoning a process to measure and begin regulating factory farm emissions. Meanwhile, Obama’s USDA – led by Tom Vilsack – failed to address industry consolidation squeezing farmers and consumers, advanced the poultry slaughter de-regulation rules that wrote the playbook for Trump’s hog slaughter rule, and oversaw a massive expansion of factory farming.

President Biden can do better than business as usual with Big Ag

We knew when Vilsack was appointed yet again that it would be an uphill battle to make any progress at USDA, given his terrible legacy during the Obama administration. And Michael Regan’s history of compromise with the factory farm industry in North Carolina – which, along with industry support, is largely credited for his bipartisan confirmation – is cause for concern that agribusiness interests will continue to take priority at EPA over the environment and justice for rural communities. 

But we won’t let the Biden administration continue business as usual. Big Ag’s devastating impacts on the environment, public health, and worker safety demand that we act. We won’t regain the ground we lost under Trump, much less finally rein in Big Ag, if we do not begin by holding President Biden’s EPA and USDA accountable.

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