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The endeavor to rein in CAFOs is the classic political battle between grassroots organizing and big money.

Big ag took some hard punches to the midsection in the last couple of weeks with the publication of two reports critical of CAFOs: one from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the other a two year study from the Pew Research Group and Johns Hopkins University. Between them, those reports spent about 400 pages documenting what grassroots activists have been shouting about the harm to family farmers, the harm to the environment, and the harm to public health.

Big deal. Smithfield and Tyson just tightened their abs and absorbed the blows. It’ll take a lot more than that to topple them.

Here’s how the battle’s being waged in Missouri.

Last year, then-Republican Chris Koster led a failed attempt in the Senate to pass a bill that would have hurt Missourians in two ways. First, it would have outlawed “nuisance lawsuits”. Sure, such lawsuits are a “nuisance” if you’re MOArk. Otherwise, they are attempts by John Q. Citizens to stand up against CAFOs that are ruining their lives. Second, the bill would have wrested the only vestige of local control of CAFOs away from citizens. Grassroots pressure was so heavy that the bill didn’t even come up for a vote.

The battle on the lawsuit front continues to rage. Premium Standard Farms came out of a particularly bloody round last year when the court ordered it to pay 4.5 million dollars to three plaintiff families. Last month a leaked memo revealed how Smithfield, which just bought Premium Standard Farms, plans to handle the threat of future suits. With hundreds more families waiting in the wings to sue, the corporation has decided not to settle out of court and not to try any suit brought by several plaintiffs at one trial. Instead, Smithfield will try each case separately.  

Few suits are as successful as the one that garnered $4.5 million, and Smithfield figures to wear out the opposition: try the cases separately so that each family has to hire legal help and hang in through all the company’s appeals, thus forcing plaintiff attorneys, whose resources may be spread thin, to wait years for any payoff.

Of course, that tactic will also be expensive for Smithfield:

When considering the acquisition of Premium Standard, Smithfield estimated its financial exposure to the litigation at $150 million to $200 million, according to the memo.

You get some idea of how lucrative CAFOs are when you see that Smithfield still considered PSF worth buying despite a $200 million legal downside. The reason CAFOs are so lucrative is that they’re heavily subsidized by you and me. And besides, like most polluting industries, they slough the cost of their pollution onto taxpayers.

Grain growers are heavily subsidized by the government, so CAFO owners get cheap food for their hogs and chickens. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that “from 1997 to 2005 taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved CAFOs nearly $35 billion in animal feed.” You can bet that family farmers who raise their own grain to feed their livestock could use those kinds of subsidies.

Keeping CAFO animals alive long enough to be slaughtered requires antibiotics, and that practice is creating drug resistant strains of pathogens. You don’t think Land O’ Lakes or Tyson will pay your bill at St. John’s Mercy or your funeral bill when one of those bugs picks you off, do you? No, nor will they clean up the streams in MacDonald County either.

On top of that, whatever few improvements big ag does have to make, it expects us to pay for them. Twin bills sponsored by Rep. Munzlinger (R-Williamstown) and Senator Clemens (R-Marshfield) would have granted tax credits for odor abatement programs. Aside from the fact that such technology is generally ineffective, there’s no reason why you and I should pay for the privilege of helping run farmers out of business who would raise antibiotic-free animals that don’t pollute the streams or raise a stench nobody can live near.

That bill (as well as the Monsanto-sponsored bill that would have prevented dairy farmers who don’t give their cows hormones from mentioning that fact on the packaging) have stalled in the legislature because of citizen pressure.

Watch out, though. True, it’s an election year, and legislators are as leery of controversy as a mouse who spies a cat. But some of those little rodents are sneaky. They like to give the impression that a bill is dead, only to attach the language as an amendment to an unrelated bill.  

With the legislature due to wind up in the next couple of weeks, activist groups such as the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and the Sierra Club will be watching carefully for end runs. Opponents can sometimes stop such a move by behind-the-scenes lobbying, basically getting enough support together and saying, “We don’t want to vote on this. It’s too hot.” Another tactic is to amend the amendment, taking out the objectionable language.

If the activists keep big ag from getting tax credits or keep Monsanto from preventing honest labeling of dairy products, we’ll call the ’08 legislative round a draw. Jeff Harris’s bill to grant local entities control over licensing CAFOs went nowhere, of course. He knew it wouldn’t. But we’ll settle for stopping odor abatement tax credits this year and hope for support of Harris’s idea in next year’s legislature. Or the year after.

Photo: farmsanctuary.org