The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Govt. Looks to Continue Handouts for Factory Farm Pollution

by Shreema Mehta

Mar. 29, 2007 – The latest round of legislative proposals to address waste from the agricultural industry would continue to give government breaks to factory farms, despite critics’ arguments that the large-scale operations are unnecessarily harmful to the environment.

The proposals are part of the first round of discussions between legislators, government officials and special interest groups over the renewal of the Farm Bill, a legislative package that covers US farm and food policies, from subsidies for commodity crops to trade to the food-stamp program.

Policymakers are proposing to continue to give large, so-called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) millions of dollars in subsidies to help control environmental damage. CAFOs, which confine thousands of animals in a single facility, generate 300 million tons of manure annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Filled with nitrogen, ammonia and at least 150 different harmful pathogens, including six that account for more than 90 percent of food and waterborne illnesses, manure from CAFOs can seep into rivers, streams and oceans, where it can kill aquatic life and taint drinking water supplies. The manure can also cause respiratory problems for workers and nearby residents.

Under different legislative proposals put forth by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Representative Richard Pombo (R–California), funds for farm conservation efforts would increase by $1.4 billion to $4.2 billion, and CAFOs would continue to qualify for the subsidies. The programs are designed to help farmers and agricultural facilities comply with environmental laws.

For instance, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) covers up to 75 percent of certain conservation costs.

Critics of industrial farming say the government should not encourage the proliferation of CAFOs with tax incentives and subsidies. The US government pays millions of dollars to subsidize the operations of large animal farms and then hundreds of thousands more to help them clean up after themselves.

In 2005, the US government doled out almost $300 million in subsidies to livestock and dairy farmers, many of which are CAFOs, according to the Environmental Working Group, which annually publishes a database of subsidies. The USDA gave more than $500,000 in EQIP funding to farms and ranches that same year.

Farm subsidy awards tend to be concentrated among a small number of farms: In 2005, the top 10 percent of recipients were paid 66 percent of all USDA subsidies. The top one percent received 20 percent of the payouts.

"These large agribusinesses are very adept at what they call ‘farming the government’ –

basically getting government money to expand and develop their operations," said Gene Baur, co-founder of the animal-advocacy group Farm Sanctuary. Baur’s organization also opposes CAFOs for the inhumane conditions the animals are kept in.

CAFOs use EQIP funding to build manure lagoons lined with clay or concrete, said Dianna Power, a resource conservationist with the USDA. The lagoons allow farmers to store excess manure so they do not overspread it on crop fields and risk leakage into rivers and streams. To control the leakage of animal feed into the soil, farmers must also sometimes build filters for the stored piles of feed, which can reach twenty feet high.

In 2006, the government gave confined feeding operations more than $152 million in EQIP funding.

As previously reported by The NewStandard, researchers with the Environmental Integrity Project, a research and advocacy group, have documented over 320 manure spills from livestock-feeding operations in Iowa alone between 1992 and 2002. The resulting pollution killed an estimated 2.6 million fish.

Power, of the USDA, said the agency is there "to serve whoever is in business." She acknowledged that CAFOs do pose greater "resource concerns" than small farms, but said they also have a greater ability to set up conservation structures. "They could have created their own problems, but they also have the means to fix their problems."

But Martha Noble, senior policy associate with the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said agribusinesses depend heavily on taxpayers to fix their problems, and subsidies such as EQIP only encourage them to grow and create even more pollution. "A lot of farmers, particularly in areas like dairy and hog-producing, who had smaller-scale systems, are on this incredibly un-level playing field," she said. "No one comes in and hands them a check and says, ‘let me pay 75 percent cost-share... of your operation.’

"The reason they don't get that is because they're not causing that big a problem," she said. "EQIP is designed to pay the biggest amount of money to those people who have made it clear that they're going to cause the biggest environmental problems. And we keep paying them."

Baur suggested that the government shift funds to the production of fruits and vegetables, which are more nutritious and less resource-intensive to produce than corn-fed meat. He also said the government should give more financial support to the nation’s family farms.

"We need a more-diversified system with more small farms and local production," he said.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

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