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Obama on factory farming: Something to crow about

David Kirby
David Kirby is author, most recently, of Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment. His previous book, Evidence of Harm, won the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for Best Book.

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?

By David Kirby

 |  March 26, 2010; 12:34 PM ET |  Category:  Presidential Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Being involved in agriculture (on a very small scale) I always cringe when the words "factory farm" start getting thrown around. The problem is, where do we draw the line on what is or is not a factory farm? How many of people's concerns about "factory farms" are really because they have just become so far removed from agriculture that anything related to farming seems scary and foreign.
Many farms no longer use moldboard plows and conventional tillage to plow their fields. Instead they use minimal till and no till techniques using round up ready seed and winter cover crops to stop soil erosion. This might look different and strange, but it is more efficient, economic, and better for the environment than tearing up the earth completely each spring and watching loads of topsoil wash away.
Also I wonder how the abandonment of the animal ID system fits into cracking down on "factory farms." The animal ID system was thought up to provide a quick way to find out where an animal had been in the case of a food borne illness or livestock disease outbreak. This is a good thing...the question is how do we do it? If you don't think this is a good thing, check out the UK during the hoof and mouth outbreak, thousands of farmers losing everything, the disease running rampant, mountains of animal corpses buring in the countryside. The UK has now adopted a system in response to that disaster, as have most other nations.
Are there things in the livestock business that need to be changed? Definitely. But just as I wouldn't walk into an auto plant and start telling all the line workers and supervisors how to do their job without ever having been in a modern car factory, I'd like to see people who have a knowledge base in agriculture making these decisions.
The extremese will always be upset, and I think in general the president has taken the right path, especially in his statement that "It takes all kinds of farmers, organic and conventional, small and large to feed America"

Posted by: dubv1980 | March 29, 2010 10:13 AM

Won't most of these restrictions lead to higher costs at the meat counter?

Let them eat arugula.

Posted by: thecomedian | March 29, 2010 10:12 AM

Great. Let's get NumbNuts involved in our food production.

That's the next item on his agenda: No jobs, governmental workers (militia), Restricted Food supply (harass farming), destroy economy (health care)

A one-man demolition. A stupid emeffer...and NO ONE to keep the psycho in check.

Posted by: easttxisfreaky | March 29, 2010 9:34 AM

Those feedlot animals are not kept in stalls. They are not fed poison. If a few thousand animals on a feed lot were moved back to small farms and raised in groups of 50-100, they would still make the same amount of waste. There would be less ability to collect and process that waste, and the hysterics would just find something else to slander the livestock industry about.

Posted by: kesac | March 29, 2010 7:09 AM

No doubt the GOP roadblock in congress of hundreds of Obama appointments to critical positions throughout the administration has had a serious negative effect on their ability make speedy progress on many campaign promises. That is precisely the result the GOP refuseniks desire. Thank you for highlighting the facts in this critically important area needing serious reform. The Obama administration has been performing heroically under the worst of circumstances on many fronts, and their successes are singularly absent in the drumbeat of sceptical media coverage. Now is not the time for those who put Pres. Obama in office to abandon the possibilities we all saw in these past two years. And consider the alternative waiting in the wings. Pres. Obama can only accomplish as much as his support allows. Being a leader is only possible if there are serious followers. Now is the time for those of good will to roll up their sleeves and pitch in.

Posted by: kobuk | March 29, 2010 2:32 AM

Wow!
I am overjoyed to learn that Obama is making these much-needed changes. That is great leadership. You are so right. So, glad that the WP has addressed this urgent issue.
1. Subsidizing big agro-business is corrupt, anti-market, uncompetitive and WASTEFUL. We have better things to do with our limited funds.
2. I don't eat mammals but who would want to eat mammals, chicken and even farm fish when so much poison is fed them and the conditions are so cruel and unsanitary? How could any humane person with a conscience take part in that?

I make sure that I know where my food comes from and that they are fed healthy food and treated humanely; otherwise, no can do. Keeping these poor mammals in stalls where they cannot even turn around must be outlawed. (It is tragic to see how many people have lost their humanity to make a buck.) That's why I do a lot of Whole Foods even though I have low income. The 365 brand is a bargain.

Posted by: GerriM | March 29, 2010 12:21 AM

David Kirby's book gives us an in-depth look at the reality of how our meat is produced in the U.S. We see what's happening through the eyes of the people involved in the industry. It's hard to imagine that anyone could continue to blindly trust that the products we see in the store are wholesome and healthy after reading Animal Factory. We need to educate ourselves and demand that those charged with oversight actually do their job. Animal Factory is a great place to start.

Posted by: amdachel | March 26, 2010 6:04 PM

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