U.S. climate and environmental justice goals require serious action on industrial livestock
by Adriane J. Busby, senior food and climate policy analyst
Since the campaign trail, President Biden has recognized climate change as “the greatest threat facing our country and our world.” He has touted the Inflation Reduction Act and its investments in underserved communities as a key accomplishment and tried to position the U.S. as a global climate leader. But there’s an elephant in the room — and it’s a cow. Despite the fact that animal agriculture is the largest source of U.S. climate changing methane emissions and a major driver of pollution in environmental justice communities, the administration has no plan to meaningfully tackle emissions and other pollution from factory farming.
During the first half of President Biden’s term — and for decades prior — industrial animal agriculture evaded federal oversight under environmental, health, and safety laws. This “agricultural exceptionalism” has shielded corporate agribusiness from accountability at the expense of rural communities and our land, water, and air. For President Biden to succeed in meeting his climate and environmental justice goals, he must direct the EPA to put a check on Big Ag.
Animal agriculture is a major driver of climate change, accounting for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions from the global food system and 36% of all methane emissions in the U.S. A recent report from the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy estimates 15 percent of the world’s largest meat and dairy corporations emit more methane than ExxonMobil, BP, or Shell. And while methane emissions are decreasing from nearly every other sector, methane emissions from U.S. agriculture are rising each year.
Yet, EPA has failed to regulate animal agriculture’s emissions, even as dozens of groups petitioned for reform. Instead, President Biden’s and EPA’s methane reduction strategy for agriculture has relied heavily on voluntary techno-fixes for the industry, like subsidizing methane digesters and other infrastructure for manure-to-gas projects. This approach further entrenches factory farming and pollutes air, water, and soil in rural, low-wealth communities and communities of color.
Factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), are wreaking havoc in these communities. CAFOs generate as much as 1 billion tons of manure each year — more than three times as much waste as humans. Often stored in giant football field-size pits and periodically sprayed on fields, these manure lagoons can contain pathogens, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and heavy metals. It also contaminates groundwater, rendering the community’s water undrinkable.
Noxious gas emissions such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide contribute to intolerable odors and can cause respiratory diseases. A 2021 study found more than 12,000 deaths per year from air pollution in the U.S. are attributable to animal agriculture. That is more deaths than from coal plants, yet air pollution from CAFOs is largely unregulated.
So why isn’t industrial animal agriculture treated like a major climate polluter, and why have vulnerable communities been left to bear the burden?
Big Ag spends millions on lobbyists to halt climate action and other environmental, health, and safety oversight, and at the same time spread climate disinformation. Most animal agriculture is no longer family-run, as it has branded itself, but corporate dominated. And for decades, this industry has enjoyed unparalleled regulatory exceptionalism that allows it to profit at the expense of the climate and impacted communities. Last summer, a Senate Committee reviewed a bill to permanently exempt animal agriculture from parts of the Clean Air Act, which would restrict even basic GHG emissions monitoring and make permanent a Republican-backed funding restriction that has passed each year for the past decade. But even with these ongoing attempts by the industry to secure broader exemptions, EPA still has substantial power to put a check on industrial animal agriculture.
EPA has ample opportunities to increase enforcement of existing CAFO policies, and to strengthen clean air and water rules governing industrial animal facilities. On the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, dozens of groups petitioned EPA to regulate water pollution from more CAFOs, and the agency was recently sued for failing to respond to another Clean Water Act rulemaking petition filed over five years ago. In response, EPA has agreed to study impact of CAFOs on waterways and whether tough regulation is needed. This is a first step to holding this industry accountable for its polluting practices, but meaningful regulations must follow — and soon.
Frontline communities have suffered from factory farm pollution for decades. Meanwhile, immediate action is needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change and midterm results show that Americans care. President Biden cannot fulfill his promises on environmental justice and climate change unless EPA reins in Big Ag. It’s time for President Biden to put his political will behind people, not polluters.