New CAFO bills carry a stench

Idaho State Journal Editorial

There’s something foul that clings to the air around bills in the Idaho Legislature to make the establishment of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs easier to establish in the Gem State. It’s the smell of easy money.
The House Agricultural Affairs Committee is considering a bill sponsored by Republican House Speaker Lawerence Denney to curtail county oversight of CAFOs and make it difficult for neighboring landowners to legally challenge the operations. It’s supposed to free the massive feeding operations from “nuisance” lawsuits and “protect farming interests,” according to Denney.
A second bill, introduced by Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, would shift the oversight of large poultry operations from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA). Currently the DEQ is involved when chicken concentrations are above 200,000 birds, but the Magic Valley has numerous applications for operations that are large, but not that large.
Counties cannot issue permits for these poultry facilities because the Department of Agriculture cannot sign off on their nutrient and management plan and the DEQ doesn’t have any rules or regulations that apply, according to Stevenson. Lawmakers and the pork industry also are working on legislation to put large swine operations under ISDA oversight.
All these moves to make it easier to establish CAFOs in Idaho seem to embrace the notion that “bigger is better.”
Proponents are wrapping their arguments for passage around Idaho’s rich agricultural history. “Agriculture is a shining star in Idaho,” attorney Dan Steenson told lawmakers during a recent committee hearing on Denney’s bill. “Expansion is necessary for businesses to grow.”
It’s nice to hear these mega-operations called businesses and not farms. They are in fact industrial in scope, although they enjoy the benefits of being agricultural in nature. And they come with a price to nature, neighbors and taxpayers.
CAFOs, generally owned by large agricultural corporations, concentrate huge numbers of poultry, swine or cattle in a much smaller area than traditional pasture operations. This concentrates waste and increases the potential to negatively impact air, water and land quality, according to the EPA.
Waste management is one of the big expenses involved in any major industry, but CAFOs enjoy a lot of help from the taxpayers. CAFOs have received more than $100 million in annual pollution prevention payments in recent years through the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which was established by the U.S. Farm Bill.
In a seven-year period taxpayer-subsidized grain prices also saved CAFOs nearly $35 billion in animal feed, which comprises a large percentage of their supply costs, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
“CAFOs aren’t the natural result of agricultural progress, nor are they the result of rational planning or market forces,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in UCS’s Food and Environment Program and author of the report. Profits are publically subsidized and this has spawned their growth.
The UCS supports alternative production methods such as hog hoop barns and smart rotating pasture operations as more environmentally friendly and cost effective measures for meeting livestock demand. It says without taxpayer subsidies, CAFOs couldn’t dominate these alternatives. Other states have taken note and shunned CAFO expansion.
Before Idahoans embrace mega livestock feeding operations with laws that silence complaints or ease regulation, perhaps we should sniff the wind of change.