A Look at the FSRA

The Farm System Reform Act was introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) in 2019. (press release)

by Tonia Moore

Have you heard about the Farm System Reform Act? It didn’t go very far in 2020. We suggest taking a few minutes to get familiar with it, as it’s likely to be reintroduced — and generate controversy — in 2021.

First, some definitions & links

What is FSRA?

FSRA is supported by reform-focused animal advocacy organizations, such as the Animal Welfare Institute, as well as environmental organizations, such as Food & Water Action. Major features of the proposal include:

  • enacting a moratorium on “large” CAFOs;
  • enacting debt forgiveness and establishing programs to help animal farmers transition into “alternative and healthy” agricultural activities;
  • strengthening certain laws that were meant to regulate unfair pricing and supply-manipulating practices by food-animal industries, including by requiring transparency on how prices are set;
  • requiring country-of-origin labeling for beef, pork, and dairy products; and
  • defining certain responsibilities and liabilities of AFOs to make them accountable for waste and dead animal disposal, for local environmental impacts, and for impact on local communities, including health concerns, property values, and quality of life. 

Common criticisms of FSRA

(1) The definition of ‘large CAFO‘ may be so large as to not be meaningful. The proposal sets the definition of a large CAFO for each type of livestock operation, following EPA CAFO regulatory definitions. Here are a few examples to give you an idea:

  • a large dairy cow CAFO has “not less than” 700 mature dairy cows,
  • a large turkey CAFO has “not less than” 55,000 turkeys,
  • a large egg-laying CAFO has either not less than 30,000 or not less than 82,000 laying hens (depending on the type of manure handling system employed)

It’s arguable that getting around these definitions — and thus the new regulations — could be easy; a turkey farm could have 54,000 turkeys and correctly claim “We aren’t a large CAFO.”

(2) Distant deadline: The proposal gives existing large CAFOs a deadline of January 2040 to stop operating as large CAFOs. So, the turkey farm with 55,000 turkeys has almost 20 years to reduce its stock to 54,000, making this demand neither urgent nor substantial. 

(3) Animal use is still OK: Regarding the programs to help farmers transition into alternative agricultural endeavors, the act specifically includes the “sustainable” option of raising “pasture-based livestock,” which can be considered problematic for multiple reasons, ranging from the fact that raising livestock simply isn’t environmentally sustainable to the use of the word based, which is suspiciously vague and makes one wonder how much time the animals get in an actual pasture. However, on the plus side, the proposal does also specifically mention growing specialty crops and “organic commodity production.”

Points in favor of FSRA

(1) Put a check on mega-corporation ‘integrators’: Today, large ‘integrators’ control animal ag markets, hoard profits, and stick contract growers with risks and costs. FSRA would prohibit predatory contracts, require integrators to obtain costly permits, protect small farmers from retaliation, and increase market transparency. These provisions, which strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, would protect family farmers and ranchers. Furthermore, these provisions will put additional checks on large CAFO operations, even those which might not technically be categorized as ‘large CAFOS’ by the EPA definitions utilized in FSRA.

(2) Closing a loophole: Current U.S. antitrust regulations do not apply to live poultry dealers. The FSRA would require live poultry dealers to comply with the regulations already imposed on other animal industries. 

(3) Establishes legal accountability to communities: By defining certain responsibilities and liabilities of an AFO (not merely CAFOs), FSRA expands opportunities for legal challenges to these businesses — making them accountable for the havoc they wreak on surrounding communities. An AFO, per the proposal, is responsible and liable for: a) disposing of dead animals and excrement or other waste; b) the release of air pollutants, including greenhouse gases, from any activity at the AFO; c) pollution to groundwater or natural bodies of water, including from the manure storage area; and d) adverse impacts on “neighboring residents,” including impacts on health, property values, and even “loss of… enjoyment of property.”