In August 2016, the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency quietly announced a major change regarding its loan program for medium-sized Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The agency would no longer require an environmental review under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) prior to the approval of such loans. Nor would neighboring farmers, rural residents or local government officials have notice that such an operation was being built until construction began. The agency gave no reasoned justification for the decision despite the high stakes for community members, clean air and water, and the climate.
This week, IATP joined seven other family farm, sustainable agriculture and citizen organizations in filing suit against the USDA, charging that the decision violated requirements under NEPA and the Administrative Procedures Act by depriving the public of the opportunity to comment on the proposed change.
NEPA is one of the nation’s most important environmental laws. It requires environmental review for any government funding actions, which entails looking at the impact both directly from the action and also the cumulative effects. For example, the location of numerous CAFOs within a watershed that passes through multiple states should be assessed for their cumulative impact. NEPA also applies to climate impacts, as a federal judge noted recently in blocking the Trump administration’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. NEPA applies to all federal agencies and to many types of federal actions, from permits to loans.
This USDA decision, made during the Obama administration and continued under the Trump administration, came as rural communities around the country are increasingly experiencing and fighting back against the harmful environmental and health impacts of these industrial CAFOs. In California, San Joaquin Valley communities are opposing air and water pollution from mega-dairies. In Iowa, groups are calling for a moratorium on new operations until water quality issues are addressed. In North Carolina, environmental justice groups are pushing back against the water, air and quality of life problems associated with the high concentration of hog and poultry CAFOs. These are mostly in African American, rural counties and are worsened by manure lagoon spills caused by two recent hurricanes.
CAFOs are considered a major source of air pollution. Waste from cow (beef and dairy) and hog CAFOs collect in manure lagoons, often open and uncovered, and release gases into the environment. The smell from the manure lagoons decreases the quality of life for surrounding communities. In addition, the liquid manure is often sprayed onto nearby fields, causing additional emissions, odor and particulate drift to surrounding communities. CAFOs emit a variety of air pollutants, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter. These pollutants can lead to health problems, particularly for children and the elderly, including respiratory illnesses; irritation to the eyes, nose and throat; anxiety and depression; memory loss; and heart disease.
But these operations are more than just a threat to their neighboring communities—they are also a threat to the climate. The enormous amounts of manure produce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions like methane (20 times more potent that carbon dioxide) and nitrous oxide (300 times more potent). Methane is produced through the digestive process of ruminants (primarily beef and dairy cows in the U.S.) and nitrous oxide is produced through the decomposition of liquified manure. The EPA says that U.S. GHGs from agriculture have grown by approximately 17 percent since 1990, with the main driver being the 68 percent rise in emissions from livestock manure.
These CAFOs operate on contract and are often owned, run or controlled by large, often global, meat and dairy corporations. For example, a recent FSA loan outlined in the lawsuit went to expand a hog CAFO in Wells County, Indiana, that was built to supply the Brazilian meat giant JBS. A turkey CAFO in Martin County, Indiana, received a loan to supply poultry giant Perdue. These corporate beneficiaries are a major source of global GHGs, according to a report by IATP and GRAIN released earlier this year.
The FSA’s decision to exempt mid-sized CAFOs from environmental review is not minor. Medium-sized CAFOs can hold as many as 699 dairy cows, 999 cattle, 2,499 hogs, 54,999 turkeys or 124,999 chickens. FSA records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that since the rule change, FSA provided at least 130 direct loans over $100,000 or guaranteed (government-backed) loans over $300,000 to animal agriculture facilities in the state of Indiana alone. For more than 100 of those loans, FSA did not conduct an environmental assessment, according to the lawsuit. FSA determined, without justification, that environmental assessments were not needed for loans to CAFO operations in Arkansas, Indiana, New York or Iowa.
These large-scale industrial animal operations are propped up by government policy and subsidies in a variety of ways—from Farm Bill programs that subsidize cheap animal feed production and manure management, to exemptions from reporting air emissions. The expansion of the CAFO model has led to massive overproduction, lower prices for producers and relentless pressure to continually increase exports for the global meat and dairy companies.
Many CAFOs around the country would not exist without FSA loan support. The use of public money should reflect the public good. Public investments in the CAFO model of production have come at the expense of support for independent farmers and ranchers who are protecting rural waterways, air and the climate. Providing a full accounting of possible environmental risks, including potential climate impacts, should be a minimum standard before any public resources are invested.