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September 23, 2009

EPA Must Regulate Factory Farm Pollution

As the federal government grapples with responses to the climate change problem, there’s an effort afoot on Capitol Hill to give a free pass to animal agribusiness. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has determined that worldwide animal agriculture accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and with the United States raising 10 billion of the world’s 65 billion land animals used for meat, eggs, and milk, our industry is by far the largest contributor to the problem.

Yet, when the U.S. House in the summer took up a major climate change measure, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) extracted a promise from the bill’s authors that agriculture would not have any obligations to take any remedial action or abide by any limits. In fact, agriculture would not only get a free pass, but they’d actually get further subsidies—credits under the cap and trade system—for remedial actions they take voluntarily. So no pain and all gain.

Pigs in pens on factory farm
USDA

These bills do not merely provide Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) with yet another free pass, they completely strip the EPA of its existing authority to regulate greenhouse gases from CAFOs. What’s more, during the annual funding process for the Environmental Protection Agency, certain farm-state lawmakers, led by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), offered amendments to prevent the EPA from being allowed to gather any data on the contribution that animal agriculture makes to climate change.

This is unconscionable. Policy makers should be informed by science and data, yet some lawmakers are so in the pocket of agribusiness that they don’t even want data gathered. These lawmakers are working against the principles of sound science and transparency.

We are tired of seeing this political spectacle play out, and earlier this week, we joined with a number of environmental and public health organizations to petition the EPA to regulate air pollution, including greenhouse gases, from CAFOs. The EPA does not currently require such animal factories to meet any testing, performance, or emission standards under the Clean Air Act, which defines the agency’s responsibilities for protecting and improving our nation’s air quality. The EPA says there are 18,800 CAFOs, with millions of pigs, cattle, and chickens kept often in intensive confinement. The agency has announced that beginning in January, the largest CAFOs (those emitting more than 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases from manure) will have to report on their emissions, along with other major sources such as oil refineries and coal plants.

CAFOs are significant contributors to air pollution. Their emissions of methane and nitrous oxide—two greenhouse gases—as well as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, represent a serious threat to public and environmental health. Alarmingly, emissions from these agricultural “smokestack operations” are on the rise, especially as the animal agribusiness sector becomes more concentrated and oligarchical.

Our petition took the form of a 69-page submission detailing the scientific and legal basis for the EPA to incorporate the regulation of CAFOs into its remit. Numerous scientific surveys, including the U.S. Inventory Report adopted by the EPA, establish that CAFOs meet the standards for regulation under section 111 of the Clean Air Act as a source that causes or contributes significantly to air pollution endangering public health and welfare.

The petition explains that reducing emissions of major pollutants from CAFOs, massive industrial facilities confining animals in warehouse-like conditions, will improve human health, reduce suffering of farm animals, protect habitat for wildlife, and reduce the effects of climate change and other environmental problems. Regulating air pollution from CAFOs will also create a strong incentive for new CAFOs to employ production methods that reduce emissions.

Importantly, the petition is geared only toward the top industrial level polluters. In addition to being an environmental and public health blight, CAFOs economically harm small farms committed to better animal welfare and environmentally sustainable practices. Once CAFOs have to comply with environmental and health standards, we will have a level playing field that helps small farmers compete.

Like so much of our work, the CAFO petition puts us at the intersection of animal welfare, environmental protection, public health, and transparency. The terrible truth about CAFOs is that they threaten not just the quality of life, but life itself. It is reasonable to expect the federal government to pursue the common good and to hold this industry no more or less accountable than other polluters. To entirely exempt them makes a mockery of the legislative process, and reinforces the perception that Congress does not do what’s right, but what is ordered up by special interests.

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