Grassroots Change
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Grassroots Movements Confront CAFOs

February 18, 2015

Local communities have traditionally exercised authority over activities that cause pollution or otherwise harm public health and safety. One example is Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs (also known as factory farms), industrialized farming operations that house large numbers of animals in enclosed spaces. CAFOs can be the source of pollution, pests, and pathogens, potentially impacting both the natural environment and the health of communities nearby.

According to Ben Price, National Organizing Director for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, large companies that manage factory farms often take decisions out of the local communities’ hands with regard to the type of feed used, animal treatment, and the management of manure. “Communities are concerned about the impact of factory farms … on health, food quality, and the local economy. A system of contracts obligates the landowner to follow these decisions and the results can be damaging to independent farming and local economies.”

Price stresses how important and effective local health and safety policies can be. “People directly impacted should be making the decisions,” he said. “That means communities must be free from state and federal preemption that makes it illegal to create the kind of communities we want to live in and pass on to future generations. Local self-government doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any greater protection provided by the state or federal government.”

Flickr user: Farm Sanctuary
Flickr user: Farm Sanctuary

Local grassroots movements have organized to regulate or ban CAFOs across the country, with differing levels of success. For people who seek to prevent a new CAFO in their area, it is especially important to understand legal developments as well as how others have fought similar projects in their communities.

In January 2015, a US District Court in Washington State ruled that manure from farms in the Yakima Valley constitutes a pollution threat and public health risk due to nitrate contamination of drinking water. The case will go to trial to uncover the extent of drinking water contamination, and whether the manure also polluted surface water. In October 2014, an administrative law judge found that manure from a CAFO in Wisconsin led to groundwater contamination and ordered additional safeguards for the CAFO responsible. And earlier this month, eight organizations announced a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the goal of pushing the EPA to strengthen air quality emissions standards for CAFOs. The American Bar Association also published “CAFOs: Five Essential Tools for Local Regulation,” to assist communities who want to better understand how they can regulate CAFOs.

Court cases like these, as well as experience and evidence from communities where CAFOs have already been addressed, can be the cornerstone of health movements fighting CAFOs. Utilizing this information as part of a public engagement and information campaign can have the benefit of building a constituency that understands the threats and protects the public’s health at the community level. This includes using the tried and true methods of organizing a grassroots movement: public forums, the use of social media and blogs, and op-eds in local news sources.