Letter to Congress

May 6, 2020

To Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, House Minority Leader McCarthy,

As you address the global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on our lives and economy, we urge you to take immediate action to correct vulnerabilities associated with our country’s reliance on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)1 where future deadly pathogens will likely develop.

Specifically, we ask Congress to:

  • put into action a plan for phasing out large CAFOs by passing legislation such as the Farm System Reform Act;2
  • establish a moratorium on mergers, and strengthen anti-trust laws to disempower large, corporate agribusinesses that have made CAFOs a central part of operations;
  • help smaller, independent farmers lead the way toward structural transition by passing into law a pilot program called the At-Risk Farmer and Rancher Diversification Act.3

Americans have long recognized that CAFOs pollute the air, contaminate water, and destroy biodiversity. Now the public is coming to discover that most infectious diseases are zoonotic and that industrial farming operations that concentrate large numbers of animals in small spaces present prime breeding grounds for the development of future pathogens. In a CDC commissioned report, The National Association of Local Boards of Health observed,

“The more animals that are kept in close quarters, the more likely it is that infection or bacteria can spread among the animals,” and that in CAFOs, “there is the possibility of novel (or new) viruses developing.”4

Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities, National Association of Local Boards of Health, CDC.gov

The US government is likewise concerned about the potential of diseases spreading through American livestock populations, as demonstrated by passage of the March 5th Protecting America’s Food and Agriculture Act of 2019.5

Considering that USDA data indicates that more than 98% of animals raised for food are produced in what the EPA would classify as CAFOs,6 7 our mainstream food supply is also a mainstream cause of zoonotic pandemics.

And yet, regulations affecting large, monopolizing agribusinesses have been relaxed. For example, many CAFOs operate without EPA permits,8 and a recent policy update allows for sped-up production lines and less governmental supervision. Professional inspectors have objected to these more lenient policies, citing safety concerns.9,10 Furthermore, a lack of anti-trust enforcement has allowed large agribusiness corporations to dominate whole sectors to the point where small independent farmers, who are trying to farm sustainably and safely, have been squeezed out. 11

Unfortunately, many federal farm programs provide well-intended supports with unintended consequences. Cheap loans, cheap livestock feed, disaster relief, profit protections, fixed pricing schemes, oversupply purchase programs, and relaxed environmental rules12 encourage large agribusinesses to pursue farming practices that are hazardous to public health and result in overproduction and waste.

If we continue relying on CAFOs, and continue allowing the large corporations that control them to pack ever more animals into confined areas, we will put the public at greater risk for future pandemics from pathogens even more contagious and deadly than the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is sickening people today with COVID-19. Furthermore, pollution, biodiversity loss, and other negative aspects associated with CAFOs will intensify.

We call on Congress to begin the process of transitioning willing farmers toward safe and sustainable farming practices, that will lead to the cessation of all large CAFO operations. We propose putting power back into the hands of small, independent farmers by phasing out CAFOs via legislation such as the Farm System Reform Act, tightening anti-trust regulations, and enacting the At-Risk Farmer and Rancher Diversification Act as a pilot program to help farmers impacted by COVID-19 transition away from animal agriculture to more sustainable production.

Respectful regards,

(list of signatories)

  1. Regulatory Definitions of Large CAFOs, Medium CAFO, and Small CAFOs https://www3.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/sector_table.pdf
  2. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/3221/text
  3. At-Risk Farmer and Rancher Diversification Act agriculturefairnessalliance.org/legislation
  4. Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities, National Association of Local Boards of Health, CDC.gov cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf
  5. PROTECTING AMERICA’S FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ACT OF 2019 govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CRPT-116srpt94/html/CRPT-116srpt94.htm 
  6. USDA 2017 Inventory Report, https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/AgCensus/2012/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_1_US/ Calculations based on the USDA 2017 Inventory Report https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1iUpRFOPmAE5IO4hO4PyS4MP_kHzkuM_-soqAyVNQcJc/edit?usp=sharing
  7. Regulatory Definitions of Large CAFOs, Medium CAFO, and Small CAFOs https://www3.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/sector_table.pdf
  8. NPDES CAFO Permitting Status Report https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-09/documents/cafo_tracksum_endyear_2018.pdf and EPA Animal Feeding Operations https://www.epa.gov/npdes/animal-feeding-operations-afos (note states like Idaho and New Mexico under federal jurisdiction; there exist hundreds of CAFOs, and fewer than 20 permits in each state)
  9. https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2019/09/17/usda-modernizes-swine-slaughter-inspection-first-time-over-50-years
  10. NBC News, Inspectors warn unsafe pork could make its way to consumers under Trump rule change https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/inspectors-warn-unsafe-pork-could-make-its-way-consumers-under-n1097676
  11. agriculturefairnessalliance.org/news/big-ag-consolidation
  12. The Greenfield Project thegreenfieldproject.org/work