Organic Consumers Association


Previous Page

Click here to print this page

Make a Donation!


Rural Americans Assert Their Right of "Self-Defense" Against Factory Farms

April 7, 2005, Issue #401 Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness From a Public Interest Perspective

TO RECEIVE: Send name and address


JOHN IKERD, SMALL FARM TODAY MAGAZINE:: Changes in agriculture are raising new questions regarding the rights of all rural Americans. Historically, farmers have defended their "right to farm," whenever residential development has brought in urban neighbors with no appreciation for the normal sights, sounds, and smells of farming.

More recently, rural residents have claimed their "right of self-defense" against growing threats to their health, safety, and welfare brought on by new industrial farming methods, particularly large-scale confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Rural residents have argued with increasing success that industrial agriculture is not farming, at least not the type farming protected by right to farm laws. Instead, they claim that CAFOs represent the unwelcome intrusion of a dangerous, obnoxious industry into their communities. The agricultural establishment has responded with widespread efforts to restrict or deny the rights of rural communities to impose any higher standards for protection of public health and the environment than that required by state law. Iowa already has such a law. Similar initiatives are currently being promoted in Missouri, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Kentucky, and undoubtedly other states of which I am not personally aware. A similar initiative at the national level seeks to prevent states from adopting higher public health and environmental standards than those imposed by federal law. The fundamental questions seem to be whether local communities have the right to exceed state standards in protecting their health and environment, and whether states have the right to exceed federal standards. The answers boil down to a matter of rights.

Questions of pubic rights can be resolved most clearly by relating them to personal rights. After all, government --- whether local, state, or national --- is simply the means by which we formalize our relationships, whenever the numbers of people involved are too large to resolve matters personally. Similar questions of rights and responsibilities arise anytime people relate to each other --- whether within nations, communities, or families. It's just easier to see the logical answers to such questions in personal relationships among family members.

The federal government has the right to set minimum standards of acceptable conduct, as required to protect our constitutional rights. All rights not granted to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved for the states. States obviously are not limited to enforcing the federal minimums for acceptable conduct. In fact, the vast majority of all criminal and civil laws are state laws.

State laws cannot conflict with federal laws but may go far beyond the federal minimums, when needed to protect and promote the wellbeing a state's residents.

People within families and communities have a responsibility to conform to both state and federal minimum standards of conduct; otherwise, they are breaking the law. It also seems logical and reasonable that families and communities have every right to exceed the minimum federal and state standards of conduct, if they choose to do so --- just as states have the right to exceed federal minimums.

The basic right to exceed standards set at higher levels of government seems obvious when we relate it to standards of behavior among people within families.

For example, it is generally conceded that parents do not have the right to physically abuse or willfully endanger the health or life of their children, although some may disagree with specific child welfare laws. But surely, no one would argue that parents do not have the right to treat their children better than the law requires. Surely, no one would suggest that parents must consult a team of pediatric experts before they can give their children better healthcare, nutrition, and clothing, or a better social and physical environment than is required by law.

Who possibly could defend a law stating that parents could not educate their children beyond high school, unless they could produce scientific evidence that their benefit will outweigh their costs? Families obviously have a right to set their own standards of health, safety, and welfare, as long as they exceed minimum legal standards.

People in communities have the same basic rights as people in families, but community standards have to be defined and enforced by laws rather than social norms and values. There are simply too many people involved to resolve all matters personally. People in communities have the same basic rights as people in families in setting higher-than-minimum standards of conduct for people in their community. States likewise have the right to exceed national standards of health, safety, and public welfare.

But, what about situations where community standards have already been set, as in the right to farm? In such cases, changes in community standards would seem to represent a "taking" of existing rights, as is argued by the agricultural establishment. Such arguments would seem justified in those instances where farming practices are no more intrusive on their neighbors than when right to farm laws were initially accepted by the community. Communities still have the right to set higher standards, but they don't have the right to force previously conforming farmers to change.

Again, the family metaphor is relevant, as a "grandfather clause" is said to apply to conforming farmers. In families, grandfathers aren't necessarily required to change their ways, even if the rest of the family chooses some higher standard of conduct. But, the rest of the family certainly doesn't have to limit itself to grandfather's level of behavior.

Equally important, if grandfather starts misbehaving, by violating his earlier standards of conduct, the family has no obligation to accept his new behavior, just because his old behavior was "grandfathered in." For example, if grandfather starts mistreating the grandkids, he will quickly lose his honored status, even if he is doing nothing that violates state or federal

So city, township, and county governments have a responsibility to conform to minimum safety, health, and environmental standards set by state and federal governments, if we follow the logic of rights and responsibilities of individuals. But, the people at each lower level of government have the right to choose standards that exceed those of the next higher level of government, without asking permission from some group of experts or providing scientific proof that higher standards are necessary.

People in communities should always be open to expert opinions and scientific information, just as families should always be open to opinions and information. However, families don't have to ask permission to set higher standards of conduct and neither should local communities.

Following similar logic, farmers who are no more intrusive on their communities and their environment than when they were granted a "right to farm" still have that right; they have been "grandfathered in" to farming. However, this right to farm does not extend to industrial agricultural operations, such as CAFOs. Industrial agriculture is fundamentally different from the family farms to which the right to farm was meant to apply. The greater safety, health, and environmental risks of factory farming are well documented, and the documentation is readily available to all who are willing to inform themselves of the issue.

All farms smell and all farms have wastes, but factory farms stink and factory farms pollute. Smells may be unpleasant to those who are unaccustomed to them, but stink is just plain obnoxious and not only causes physical and mental discomfort, but also causes clinical illness.

All farms also create potentially harmful chemical and biological wastes, which can make their way into groundwater and streams. However, when livestock are dispersed across the countryside, on pasture or in small-scale facilities, they present little risks to human health or safety. Likewise, when crops are produced in rotations to control pest and provide fertility, risk of water contamination by agricultural chemicals are minimal. Dispersion and dilution mitigates potential pollution on real farms.

However, industrial agriculture inevitably pollutes streams and groundwater, simply because they concentrate too many animals, too many antibiotics and hormones, and too many agricultural chemicals in too small a space. Cities are required to maintain waste treatment facilities, rather than allow individual septic systems.

Extensive waste treatment is necessary to protect public health when too many people and too many industrial wastes are concentrated in too small a space. An industrial agricultural operation is more like a city than a farm, except it has thousands of animals rather than thousands of people and agrichemicals rather than industrial chemicals.

So, existing farmers have no inherent right to become industrial farmers, unless they are willing to meet urban residential standards for use of chemicals and treatment of wastes. And, communities have every right to keep new industrial agricultural operations out of their communities, if they choose to do so.

This leaves only the argument that state and local health and environmental regulations cannot be allowed to interfere with interstate or intrastate commerce - that economic efficiency trumps public safety, health, and well-being. Again, the family analogy shows the inherent foolishness of this argument. Families have no responsibility to accept minimum state or federal standards, even when higher family standards clearly interfere with their participation in the marketplace.

Families have no obligation to buy materials that they consider pornographic, even if such materials are legally for sale. Families have no obligation to sell their property to someone they consider to be unethical, even if that person is the highest bidder. Families have every right to reject any legal economic opportunity that they view as a threat to their health or well-being.

And, they don't have to consult an expert or provide scientific proof of harm. Communities --- counties, townships, and states --- are made up of people and must be afforded rights as people. Rural people have every right to allow only ecologically sound and socially responsible economic development for their communities. [ January-February, 2005 ]