How Factory Farms Quietly Defeated Food Safety In North Dakota

While the defeat of California’s GMO labeling proposition was widely mourned by the food safety movement, a far more insidious ballot initiative that passed in North Dakota on Election Day has been largely overlooked. North Dakotans quietly voted through a “Farm Amendment” last Tuesday banning any regulation that “abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices.”

The full constitutional amendment is exceptionally vague, reading in entirety:

The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state. No law shall be enacted which abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices.

The Farm Bureau-sponsored amendment, the first of its kind, gives blanket protection to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that dominate the rural state. These facilities have been exposed time and again for abusing livestock, passing off sick cattle as healthy, and, most seriously, polluting water and air quality with massive amounts of animal manure. Drinking water pollution has been a serious problem for communities near these operations, which the US Geological Survey identified as the largest source of nitrogen pollution in the country.

These large factory farms already have a tight grip on legislators. Earlier this year, the USDA was pressured into apologizing for its internal Meatless Monday initiative by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who claimed the optional vegetarian day was a full-scale attack on agriculture. The meat industry has also managed to pass “ag gag” laws in five states that make it illegal for whistleblowers to secretly film inside facilities or take a job under false pretenses.

But perhaps the most telling demonstration of the meat industry’s power is the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent abandonment of a farm waste reporting rule that simply required CAFO owners to disclose basic operations. The rule would have allowed the EPA to track how many animals each CAFO holds, how much manure is being discharged into the water supply, and which facilities are violating the Clean Water Act. Threats of lawsuits by CAFO owners were enough to nip even this basic regulation in the bud.

The EPA was also hobbled in March by the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined that the agency could not require CAFOs to have discharge permits unless they were actually proven to discharge pollutants. As they are unable to collect data on waste discharge, the EPA is now essentially blind to which CAFOs pose a problem and which are compliant with the Clean Water Act.

The North Dakota amendment is vague enough to block virtually any attempt to regulate CAFO operations. More state Farm Bureaus are likely to follow North Dakota’s lead, despite the blatant dangers these facilities poses to public health. Factory farms now produce more than 99 percent of all farmed animals raised and slaughtered in the US. If the federal EPA remains toothless, Americans may never know the true cost of their hamburgers.