In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Robert Martin, co-author of a recent study on industrial farm animal production, explains how a powerful and intransigent agriculture lobby has successfully fought off attempts to reduce the harmful environmental and health impacts of mass livestock production.
by Christina M. Russo
In 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released a landmark report, Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. The commission’s study condemned the way the U.S. raised its cattle, pigs, and chickens and made a sweeping series of recommendations on how to reduce the severe environmental, public health, and animal welfare problems created by the current system. Last month, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) released a study analyzing the fate of these reforms and reached a stark conclusion: The power of the industrial agriculture lobby had blunted nearly all attempts at change.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Christina Russo, Robert Martin — the executive director of the Pew Commission’s 2008 report and now the Food System Policy program director at the CLF and co-author of its recent study — discusses what went wrong and how reforms can proceed. According to Martin, the key is building public pressure on the Obama administration and Congress to demand changes from an intransigent industry that Martin describes as “having more money than Big Tobacco did in efforts to regulate cigarettes and the personality of the National Rifle Association.” One hopeful sign, said Martin, “is that there are more and more people who are concerned about where their food comes from and how it’s produced.”
Yale Environment 360: Can you highlight the findings of your latest report?
Robert Martin: There was a lot of activity generated by the Pew report, and in a very important way it focused the debate in a way that hadn’t happened before. But what we found was that very little progress had been made and that in almost every case things had worsened in the last five years.
Our number one public health recommendation [in the 2008 report] was to ban the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, and we define therapeutic as treating sick animals that have a diagnosed microbial disease. We also had a provision for disease prevention — that is, if several animals in a flock or herd became sick, you should treat the whole flock or herd at therapeutic levels for very short period of time to try and kill the bacteria.
The practice that is common now is daily, low-level amounts of antibiotics added to the animal feed or water to really suppress bacteria long enough for the animals to get through the production system. And what this does is it leads to very serious antibiotic resistance issues that are housed in these operations but make their way into the human population either through flies carrying the resistant bacteria out, wild birds carrying them out, bacteria being flushed out in the waste of the animals, or by being carried out into the community by workers.
In the last five years, Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York has sponsored the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would ban for use in animal agriculture the top seven antibiotics important in human medicine. Unfortunately, that legislation has gone nowhere. Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold by weight in the country are used in food animal production. So, while we can make strides in reducing inappropriate use of antibiotics in human medicine, if 80 percent of the antibiotics are being sold and used in food animal production, clearly that is where we can now make the most important strides.
Yale Environment 360: What did you find in terms of the environmental impact of the Pew report?
Martin: On the environmental side there is a very troubling aspect. At the time of the release of the Pew Commission report, only about 34 percent of the waste generated by these operations was permitted under Clean Water Act permits; the only way you can regulate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — or CAFOs — is through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act. So the Pew Commission recommended that there be a full inventory of these operations, because we don’t even know where all of them exist. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said these operations generate 350 million tons of waste per year. The EPA says they generate 500 million tons of waste per year. And so we said ‘Look, you need to do an inventory and you need to bring more of them under permitting.’
The Obama administration had just started to find out where these operations were. But because of pressure from the industry, they abandoned that effort late last year before the election. Every [presidential candidate] gets so focused on winning Iowa and Ohio and Minnesota — states that are heavy CAFO states — that they abandoned that effort to inventory operations. And there are more of these operations coming online everyday. The environmental damage is getting worse, and the federal regulatory agencies that should be stepping up aren’t.
As for animal welfare, the animals are overcrowded and they stand either in or over their own waste all their lives. And the only reason why they don’t die in those situations is because of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. And the only reason why the overcrowding can go on from a waste standpoint is because these swine barns are built over concrete waste pits that are flushed into an open cesspool twice a day. The waste is then collected and then sprayed untreated on fields surrounding the CAFOs. So, the way these animals are overcrowded with lack of natural movement, which is a very serious animal welfare issue — it’s just really all part of one system.
In looking at all these areas, I was asked by a reporter what kind of grade I would give progress on the Pew Commission’s recommendations, and I answered that I’d give the regulatory [agencies] and lawmakers an ‘F.’ Because really no progress has been made. These are enormously powerful industries. I always say that Big Ag has more money than Big Tobacco did in efforts to regulate cigarettes and the personality of the National Rifle Association. I think it puts it in a context people can understand.
Yale Environment 360: The Pew Commission’s report was released with the hope that Obama would take the lead in industrial agriculture reform, which the Bush administration had not done. What indication did you have that the Obama administration would take these recommendations seriously to begin with?
Martin: When Obama was a candidate in the Iowa caucus, his platform really read like an aggressive support for sustainable agriculture. He talked about checking the growth of the large industrial animal operations. Then, during the North Carolina primary he was shown a copy of the Pew Commission report and he said he endorsed the findings and he would work to implement its recommendations. And I take him at his word. But when you put the former governor of Iowa as the Secretary of Agriculture — Tom Vilsack, who had stated publicly there was no problem with antibiotic use and food animal production — well, Vilsack’s interest was in not really rocking the boat.
In January 2009, as Obama was taking office, the Economic Research Service at the USDA said that antibiotics tended to be overused in large-scale animal operations. And a month or two later Vilsack said we are using them judiciously, there’s no problem. And what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seems to be doing now is promulgating regulations — they are voluntary guidelines — only at the consent of the regulated. They are only willing to do what the industry says it will accept.
I would guess Teddy Roosevelt is spinning in his grave. He was more worried about the ‘meat cartel,’ as he called it, than Standard Oil and the railroads. And that’s why the Food and Drug Administration was formed.
Yale Environment 360: What are the most concerning environmental impacts of industrial farm animal production?
Martin: In the fields around these operations, it’s also an over-application of phosphorous, which over the long term will harm the productivity of the land because the phosphorous will burn out of the soil. And I think the public health link to this environmental damage is a real concern, as well: What kinds of pathogens are being carried in this waste into the waters that can make people sick?
There is also a very serious air quality problem. Studies by the University of Iowa and University of North Carolina have shown that up to five miles downwind of these operations children have an increase in asthma-like symptoms because of the particulate matter that is blown out of these barns by the ventilation systems.
Yale Environment 360: The Pew report said that, pound for pound, pigs produce four times the waste of a human. Can you describe in more detail the crude process of waste disposal at these facilities?
Martin: In a typical industrial swine operation, there may be 5,000 animals housed in two barns. The barns are built over concrete pits that are probably three feet deep. The animals stand on metal-slated floors, so their waste drops through the floor and is collected in these pits under the building. And two times a day the pits are flushed into what is called a waste lagoon, which is really an open cesspool containing the liquid and solid waste from the animals. When that pit fills up, the waste is either pumped into a truck and hauled a very short distance and sprayed on fields or pumped directly from the cesspool onto surrounding fields near the CAFO — with no treatment.
Not only is it serious environmental degradation because a lot of the waste just runs off into surface water, but swine waste contains a lot of the same pathogens that human waste does; physiologically, pigs and people are very similar. Untreated swine waste is 200 times more concentrated than treated human waste. And treated swine waste is 75 times more concentrated than human waste. But swine waste is not treated — it’s just held in these lagoons and pumped onto fields. And whatever is in that waste goes into the ground water and into the surface water.
Yale Environment 360: Do you think the environmental movement has appropriately seized on industrial farms as an environmental issue?
Martin: I think some of the national environmental groups have been a bit slow on this. It’s an interesting thing — people who live closest to these operations become environmentalists very quickly, because they see the damage not only to air quality, because of the stench, but they also see the damage because of the over-application of the waste.
Yale Environment 360: Undercover videos have shown animals being violently abused in the U.S. Are the efforts by animal welfare groups successfully bringing attention to the problems of the industrial livestock operations, even more so than environmentalists?
Martin: I would really have to commend the Humane Society of the United States for a couple of reasons. Number one, they did the really tough work going state by state — in some states to ban gestation crates for pigs or in other states to ban [confined] cages for chickens. They finally got the attention of the industry because everywhere they went up against the industry, the Humane Society won. So, they deserve a huge amount of credit for using the animal welfare concerns as the symptoms of a sick system.
Yale Environment 360: How does the recent purchase of Smithfield Foods by a Chinese company factor into this larger storyline?
Martin: The purchase of Smithfield by a large Chinese company is very concerning. Number one, it is a huge export of U.S. energy and grain and water to China in the form of pigs. There is a virtually insatiable appetite for pork in China. So I worry that we will be a net loser from an environmental and energy standpoint — and all we will be left with is the hog [manure].
One of the things the industry always says is, ‘Oh my god, we have to feed 10 billion people in 2050.’ The fact is there was a report called Agriculture at a Crossroads in 2008, and they said that we annually raise enough food calories for 10 billion people. The problem is what we are doing with those calories and the waste and spoilage of those systems. There is about 48
percent wastage, especially in developing countries. But also about 80 percent of the corn we raise in the country is fed to animals that we then consume, which is an inefficient transfer of energy.
Yale Environment 360: There are so many actors in your report. Which actor could provide the most reform if it wanted to?
Martin: I think clearly if the president said, ‘I want to do X,’ then the agencies in the executive branch would have to follow suit. If he told the FDA that more voluntary guidelines weren’t the way to go on antibiotics, and he wanted rules and not suggestions, and he wanted a program to ratchet down and eliminate the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animals, it could happen. They did it in Denmark. They eliminated the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in swine production and their productivity has gone up. They have more piglets per sow, fewer infections in the swine herd, and fewer infections in the human population.
Yale Environment 360: It’s the five-year mark of the Pew report, and your assessment is quite grim in terms of reform. So how can these recommendations be implemented in the future?
Martin: The chairman of the Pew Commission was the former governor of Kansas and he had a saying that I quote all the time: ‘A politician begins to see the light when he feels the heat.’ Our conclusion in the report was that an informed and engaged public is essential to getting the attention of policy makers and regulatory officials. So a hopeful sign, actually, is that there are more and more people who are concerned about where their food comes from and are interested in how it’s produced. I think the only optimistic thing is the growing number of people who are worried about the food system.