Across the country, a call grows for moratoriums on huge livestock farms

As the number of massive livestock farms balloons in states like Iowa, Maryland, and Nebraska, communities are scrambling to figure out how to control the pollution and waste produced by thousands — or tens of thousands — of animals. In some places, officials have opted to ban the mega-farms altogether, and the idea of a moratorium on the biggest animal farms is gaining support in local governments, statehouses, and even in Congress.

In places as far afield as Faulk County, South Dakota, and Mount Judea, Arkansas, rural residents are petitioning their local officials to issue temporary or permanent bans on new concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). They say these moratoriums are a longer-term and more holistic solution to the environmental concerns posed by CAFOs than a more incremental approach.

Even federal policymakers have picked up the flag of the moratorium. In December, senator and former presidential candidate Cory Booker introduced a bill that would implement several livestock farming reforms, including a moratorium on new CAFOs. Sen. Booker has previously introduced legislation that would institute a moratorium on agribusiness mergers and acquisitions.

While neither of those bills has become law, they have inspired rural residents to push for local moratoriums, advocates say. Krissy Kasserman, the factory farm organizing manager at Food & Water Watch, an activist nonprofit, says the communities she works with have “had enough” and want a “more bold solution” to addressing the air and water pollution and other environmental and health concerns presented by CAFOs.

“The time for small changes in our regulations or slightly better enforcement has passed,” Kasserman says. “Those tactics have not resulted in the kind of change that we really need [to] protect our food safety, our climate, our air and water, our independent farms, and our rural communities.”

More CAFOs, more problems

Between 2011 and 2017, more than 1,400 large-scale CAFOs opened across the U.S., bringing the nation’s total to nearly 20,000. Many of those new operations were in Iowa, which now has nearly 4,000 large CAFOs. Delaware and Maryland also experienced a significant uptick, with the number of CAFOs rising 600 percent and 300 percent, respectively.

These operations can house thousands of cattle, hogs, or chickens, and each CAFO can produce millions of gallons of manure annually. They also emit untold quantities of air pollution and are largely exempted from the nation’s clean-air laws.

The rapid expansion has spurred many rural communities to call for stronger farm regulations. At a rally at the statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, last Thursday, a coalition led by Food & Water Action (the political arm of Food & Water Watch) and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund called on presidential candidates support a statewide moratorium on new CAFOs in the leadup to the Iowa presidential caucus.

“As a rural resident and an independent farmer, I see the devastating impacts of a runaway building boom of factory farms not only on independent family farms … but also on the environment,” said Chris Peterson, who is on the board of the Iowa Farmers Union, in a press release for the rally. “We’re talking about water quality, human health, rural neighborhoods, and even rural social structure.”

Moratoriums vary in length and breadth depending on the issues faced by the communities. Some are size-based: In 2019, three Wisconsin counties issued year-long moratoriums on any new CAFO with at least 1,000 animals. Others affect only some types of livestock. In Lancaster County, Nebraska, officials have twice considered a moratorium that would ban new poultry CAFOs, a direct response to the arrival of Costco’s poultry processing plant in the region and its numerous accompanying mega-farms. A coalition in Nebraska is also pushing for a statewide CAFO moratorium.

Some moratorium proposals have emerged in response to a specific environmental threat. In Arkansas, a proposed change to state regulations would implement a permanent moratorium on hog CAFOs in the Buffalo River watershed to protect the region from groundwater contamination. The moratorium proposal came soon after the state bought out a hog operation in the watershed that residents worried would degrade water quality.

In other cases, residents want a moratorium for the message it sends about factory farming. Last year in Oregon, the legislature considered a statewide moratorium on new dairies with more than 2,500 cows. The bill was introduced after the state shut down a 15,000-cow dairy operation plagued by numerous violations and fines.

“These mega dairies simply put small family farmers out of business,” says Shari Sirkin, executive director of Friends of Family Farmers, an Oregon nonprofit. Having a constellation of smaller dairy farms serve local and state demand is “a much better scenario than having one or two giant, polluting, greenhouse gas-causing mega-dairies.” 

Nationally, a call for CAFO bans

Momentum in rural communities around moratoriums has been buoyed by national interest in the issue, advocates say. Beyond Sen. Booker’s policy proposals, rural organizers have been encouraged by polling and expert recommendations that support a ban on CAFOs.

A poll released in December by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that 57 percent of Americans want more oversight of large animal farms, and 43 percent favor a national moratorium on new CAFOs. And in states that have high concentrations of CAFOs, like Iowa and North Carolina, support for a moratorium was even higher.

The American Public Health Association also recommended this year that states issue moratoriums on new CAFOs “until additional scientific data on the attendant risks to public health have been collected and uncertainties resolved.”

Advocates say their major obstacle to passing moratoriums is farm industry groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation or state chapters of the federal hog and cattle lobbies. (The Farm Bureau did not respond to a request for comment by press time.) In Arkansas, the Farm Bureau chapter and the Arkansas Pork Producers Association were reportedly the only two entities that submitted comments opposed to the Buffalo River watershed moratorium during a public comment period that ended in January. The Nebraska Farm Bureau said a poultry CAFO moratorium in that state “would be the equivalent of halting the growth of rural Nebraska.”

“The Farm Bureau has a big and powerful presence in the Iowa legislature and throughout the state,” says Kasserman. “If you have legislators who are answering to the Farm Bureau instead of the voters who elected them, you see them not taking action on the issues that their constituents want action on.”

A national CAFO moratorium like the one proposed by Sen. Booker would need support from both parties to pass, which is unlikely given the polarized state of Congress. But state and local moratoriums may be more feasible. In addition to Iowa and Nebraska’s state moratorium campaigns, the Maryland legislature is expected to consider a moratorium bill this session, and in 2021, proponents say, Oregon lawmakers will get another shot at a moratorium bill.