The Trump administration’s attacks on key environmental and other programs have dominated the news this year. But while many have focused on what’s happening inside the Beltway, state legislatures spent the first months of the year working on a range of issues. When it comes to factory farms in particular, a lot of good or bad can happen at the state level.
Many state legislative sessions are winding down or have already ended for 2017. There were some wins on important factory farm-related issues like antibiotic overuse, and an effort to weaken permitting in Indiana was thwarted by an enormous outpouring of people power. There were some losses—especially in expansions of Right to Farm laws which reek of influence from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). We’ll provide you with the good, the bad and the ugly in this roundup—and then we’ll talk solutions.
Ag Gag Laws
What does the factory farming industry have to hide? A lot, apparently. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law a bill that would allow lawsuits to be filed against people who take unauthorized video on commercial properties. While this “ag-gag” law is aimed at preventing animal rights activists from filming on factory farms, the broad way in which the law is written could actually end up preventing whistleblowers from exposing illegal activities or abuses in other commercial venues such as daycare centers, nursing homes or restaurants.
Texas enacted its own spin on ag-gag by passing a law classifying factory farms as “critical infrastructure” thus making it a jailable offense to simply fly a drone over a factory farm—even if no photos are taken. Instead of fines, people could face jail time just for wanting to know the truth about the food we eat. This law will make it more difficult for whistleblowers, journalists and even academic researchers to document violations of environmental standards on factory farms.
ALEC’s “Right to Farm” Legislation Spreads
For several years, the ALEC has been pushing “Right to Farm” bills in statehouses across the country to protect factory farms and their corporate benefactors from the neighbors they impact. In North Carolina, the General Assembly passed a measure which limits the ability of neighbors of factory farms to recover compensation for damages resulting from “nuisances” associated with factory farms. Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, but the General Assembly, in a clear demonstration of its allegiance to Big Pork, overrode the veto. Similarly, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed into law a bill that limits damages that nearby property owners may recover if they are affected by a factory farm.
Texas passed what became known as the “Monsanto Bill” which pre-empts local control over seeds and the "cultivation of plants grown from seed." Despite the fact that no municipality in Texas has ever tried to regulate seeds or the cultivation of plants grown from seeds, this measure will prohibit local regulation of when or where herbicides, chemical fertilizers or manure can be applied—even when that application poses a human health risk. Missouri’s House of Representatives also considered a bill that would have limited counties’ authority to pass health ordinances governing the development and operation of factory farms. The bill had strong industry support but ultimately did not pass.
In Oregon, a progressive bill that would have restricted antibiotics to use only under the supervision of a veterinarian for treating or controlling the spread of a disease died in committee. The measure, aimed at slowing bacterial resistance to antibiotics, would also have required factory farms to report usage of antibiotics. Maryland joined California in passing legislation to limit routine antibiotic use in healthy livestock and poultry. Governor Larry Hogan declined to either sign or veto the bill which will now take effect on October 1.
Pollution Trading Defeated in Iowa
In Iowa, a set of bills proposing the use of public funds for voluntary efforts to improve water quality endangered by Big Ag did not pass. House and Senate proposals died after the two chambers couldn’t reach agreement on the language. The House version contained a pollution trading scheme that would have essentially made polluting a privilege for corporations with deep enough pockets to purchase the right to do so. The legislature's inaction on this bill is a small victory for water quality.
Attacks on State Regulations
Tennessee enacted a measure that effectively eliminates the requirement that factory farms secure state permits to regulate animal waste disposal—unless those farms actually pollute groundwater or waterways. Because we know that most, if not all, factory farms have some kind of negative impact on surface or groundwater, this law essentially rolls back state standards to be no stricter than federal ones and will allow the enforcement of environmental laws only after a complaint has been filed.
In a big win for the public, Indiana’s Senate rejected a bill seeking to weaken permitting standards for factory farms. Had this proposal been enacted it would have replaced clear permitting standards with nebulous and vague requirements, eliminated some public notice requirements and done away with compliance history disclosures for factory farm owners or operators. While the bill sailed through the House of Representatives, thanks to an outpouring of opposition and outrage it was voted down in the Senate.
In this legislative session some important victories were made possible by clear demonstrations of people power. Many groups working at the state level mobilized their membership and showed elected officials that the public expects them to be accountable to their constituents. In some states (we’re looking at you, North Carolina) elected officials continue to pander to Big Ag in a big way—reinforcing that corporate influence in our political system is one of the biggest threats to our health, environment, food and water.
State legislative sessions may have wrapped for the year, but fights over factory farms have not. We will continue to work in coalition with local and state partners to advocate for the enforcement of environmental regulations and moratoria on the construction of new factory farms and the expansion of existing facilities. We’ve filed a legal petition with the Environmental Protection Agency citing its duty under the law to hold factory farms accountable for their water pollution. We’re also working to overhaul the system by advocating for the restoration of sensible farm programs and against continued consolidation in the meatpacking and processing industries and against gimmicks like water pollution trading. Stand with us to help shift the balance of power and restore our democracy.