Beginning in 2006, 15 commissioners, each with expertise in public policy, veterinary medicine, public health, agriculture, animal welfare, or rural society, undertook an exhaustive examination on the impacts to humans, animals and the environment of intensive food animal production.
Among the numerous recommendations in its report, "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America," the Commission advocates a new system to deal with farm waste "that will replace the inflexible and broken system that exists today" and protect Americans from the adverse environmental and human health hazards of improperly handled waste.
Dairy cows in an industrial farming operation in Iowa (Photo courtesy Iowa State University Extension)
Congress and the federal government should work together to formulate laws and regulations outlining baseline waste handling standards for Industrial Farm Animal Production, IFAP, facilities, the Commission recommends. States could choose to implement more stringent regulations if they considered them necessary.
"Our diminishing land capacity for producing food animals, combined with dwindling freshwater supplies, escalating energy costs, nutrient overloading of soil, and increased antibiotic resistance, will result in a crisis unless new laws and regulations go into effect in a timely fashion," says the Commission. "This process must begin immediately and be fully implemented within 10 years."
State environmental protection agencies, rather than state agricultural agencies, should be charged with regulating IFAP waste," the Commission says.
"This would prevent the conflict of interest that arises when a state agency charged with promoting agriculture is also regulating it."
Addressing risks to public health from intensive farm animal production, the Commission recommends creation of a Food Safety Administration that combines the food inspection and safety responsibilities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA; the Food and Drug Administration, FDA; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies into one agency to improve the safety of the U.S. food supply.
"The current system to ensure the safety of U.S. food is disjointed and dysfunctional; for example, FDA regulates meatless frozen pizza whereas USDA has jurisdiction over frozen pizza with meat. This fractured system has failed to ensure food safety, and a solution requires a thorough national debate about how the most effective and efficient food safety agency would be constructed," the Commission says.
Numerous known infectious diseases can be transmitted between humans and animals; in fact, of the more than 1,400 documented human pathogens, about 64 percent are zoonotic, the Commisson states.
The commissioners studied the spread of zoonotic diseases and other public health threats, environmental degradation, animal welfare concerns, and socioeconomic effects on rural communities as agriculture changed from the extensive system of small and medium-sized farms owned by single families to a system of large, intensive operations where the animals are housed in large numbers in enclosed structures that resemble industrial buildings.
Commission Chairman John Carlin, a former governor of Kansas, experienced that change personally. "When I was growing up, my family operated a dairy farm, which not only raised cows to produce milk, but crops to feed the cows and wheat as a cash crop," he writes in his Forward to the report. "When I took over management of the farm from my father in the mid-sixties, on average we milked about 40 cows and farmed about 800 acres. We were one of some 30 such dairy operations in Saline County, Kansas."
"Today in Saline County and most Kansas counties, it is nearly impossible to find that kind of diversified farm," writes Carlin. "Most have given way to large, highly specialized, and highly productive animal producing operations. In Saline County today, there is only one dairy farm, yet it and similar operations across the state produce more milk from fewer cows statewide than I and all of my peers did when I was actively farming."
This change from extensive to intensive animal food production has resulted in inhumane treatment of farm animals, which in turn has consumers worried about the welfare of the animals they eat.
Laying hens in battery cages have no space to turn around or spread their wings. (Photo courtesy Humane Society of the United States)
One of the Commission's prime recommendations addresses the fact that consumer concern for humane treatment of food-producing animals is growing and has prompted change in the industry.
After reviewing the literature, visiting production facilities, and listening to producers, the Commission believes that the most intensive confinement systems, such as restrictive veal crates, hog gestation pens, restrictive farrowing crates, and battery cages for poultry, all prevent the animals from a normal range of movement and constitute inhumane treatment.
The Commission recommends that all these practices be phased out within the next 10 years to reduce IFAP risks to public health and improve animal well-being.
The commissioners recommend a government oversight system similar in structure to that used for laboratory animal welfare. Each IFAP facility would be certified by an industry-funded, government-chartered, not-for-profit entity accredited by the federal government. Federal entities would audit IFAP facilities for compliance.
Consumers could look for the third-party certification as proof that the production process meets federal farm animal welfare standards, the Commission recommends.
Human health of workers and consumers is addressed with a recommendation that the federal, state, and local governments should begin collecting data on air emissions, ground and surface water emissions, soil emissions, and health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, heart disease, injuries, and allergies.
Federal government worker samples toxics in a hog manure lagoon. (Photo courtesy USGS)
The Commission recommends that these data be tabulated and combined with existing data in a national IFAP data clearinghouse that will enable agencies to keep track of air, water, and land emissions from IFAP facilities and evaluate the public health implications of these emissions.
Currently, federal agencies each keep extensive records for different industries as a way to track changes and regulate each industry. The clearinghouse would consolidate all IFAP data.
"Large-scale industrialized farms create a variety of social problems for communities," the Commission states.
One recommendation to address these problems suggests that states, counties, and local governments should implement zoning and siting guidance that fairly and effectively evaluate the suitability of a site for these types of facilities.
"Distances from schools, residences, surface and groundwater sources, churches, parks, and areas designated to protect wildlife should all be factored into the proposed location of a food animal production facility. Waterways are particularly crucial as any waste that seeps into water sources may travel great distances," the Commission says.
Another major recommendation concerns the routine use of specially formulated feeds that incorporate antibiotics, other antimicrobials, and hormones to prevent disease and induce rapid growth.
Saying that the use of low doses of antibiotics as food additives facilitates the rapid evolution and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and the resulting potential for "resistance reservoirs" and interspecies transfer of resistance determinants is "a high priority public health concern," the Commission recommends that their use be restricted.
Factory-farmed pigs raised for meat undergo painful mutilations without anesthesia. For six months, they are fattened in overcrowded sheds or pens. (Photo courtesy HSUS)
At the same time, a flexible risk-based system for food safety from farm to fork should be developed to improve the safety of animal protein produced by IFAP facilities, the Commission recommends.
The industry must attack food safety issues at their source, instead of trying to fix a problem after it has occurred, by instituting better sanitary and health practices at the farm level, the Commission says.
Environmental issues, particularly waste handling, received intense examination by the Commission, which had a number of recommendations beginning with the enforcement of existing federal, state, and local regulations.
"Adequate mandatory federal funding" must be provided to enable states to hire more trained inspectors, collect data, monitor farms more closely, educate producers on proper manure handling techniques, write Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans, and enforce regulations, the Commission states.
However necessary, many of these recommendations may make life difficult for producers, the Commission acknowledges.
"There have been some serious obstacles to the Commission completing its review and approving consensus recommendations," writes Robert P. Martin, the Commission's executive director, in his Preface to the report. "The formation of this Commission was greeted by industrial agriculture with responses ranging from open hostility to wary cooperation."
"In fact, while some industrial agriculture representatives were recommending potential authors for the technical reports to Commission staff, other industrial agriculture representatives were discouraging those same authors from assisting us by threatening to withhold research funding for their college or university," writes Martin.
"We found significant influence by the industry at every turn: in academic research, agriculture policy development, government regulation, and enforcement," he writes.
"Among the many changes likely in the next 50 years, we believe the following three will be especially challenging to the U.S. industrial food and agriculture system: the depletion of stored energy and water resources, and changing climate," writes Fred Kirschenmann, PhD, on behalf of the Commission in his chapter of the report.
A Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University, and a North Dakota rancher, Kirschenmann points out that the emerging market for biofuels has changed that equation because "the value of corn and other commodity crops is now tied to their energy value, often resulting in higher prices."
"The real energy transition will have to be from an energy input system to an energy exchange system," he writes," and this transition is likely to entail significant system changes in the U.S. production of crops and livestock."
To read the Pew report, "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America," click here.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.