CAFOs: Threats to water and local control

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By Todd Parnell 
Guest contributor 

CAFO. Confined Animal Feeding Operation. Corporate Farm. Industrial Piggery. Poultry Palace. Wouldn’t you just love to have one as a neighbor?

But first: What is a CAFO? 

For those who may not know, CAFOs are large, open-air buildings or feedlots with cattle, hogs, turkeys, or chickens jammed beak to tail feather or snout to bottom for fattening up.  A CAFO is defined by the number of animals confined, with 1,000 or more cattle, 5,000 to 10,000 pigs and 35,000 to 40,000 chickens or turkeys as the norm. 

Their excrement ends up in open air lagoons or underlying pits until it is sprayed on or injected into adjoining fields, or transferred for offsite application. And there is a lot of it; 6,500 pigs produce as much putrid annual waste as a community of 30,000 souls — and and we treat ours.

In corporate ag-heavy states like Iowa and Kansas, the damage inflicted by CAFOs has been widely documented and litigated.

In Missouri, the Missouri Clean Water Commission currently permits about 500 CAFOs, most in the northern half of the state. Twenty of these are the large, Class 1A facilities.  In far southwest Missouri, there are a significant number of chicken CAFOs, principally in Barry, McDonald, and Newton counties. In lake country, Taney, Christian, and Greene counties, there are none. 

Yet.

In the Ozarks, concentrated animal waste is particularly damaging, where rain, runoff, and seepage through shallow soils represent a clear and present danger to the unique Ozark karst topography of springs, creeks, streams, lakes and water tables.  Still want to have one as a neighbor?

Unfortunately, it will soon become easier for this to happen.

In the last week of the most recent session, the Missouri legislature passed a bill — Senate Bill 391 — which attempts to remove any local health ordinances previously passed by elected officials to protect the health of local residents and to exert some control over the establishment of CAFOs in home counties. There are currently 20 of these health regulations in place. 

State government, however, is attempting to take these protections away. The new law proclaims that no entity can enforce restrictions on CAFOs that are more strict than state regulations. 

This is particularly problematic because Missouri has systematically reduced regulation of CAFOs since 2013. That year, legislation was passed to allow foreign ownership of farm land in Missouri — which expedited the acquisition of Smithfield Foods by a giant Chinese conglomerate. 

This was followed by the Right to Farm constitutional amendment, which was billed as a protection for traditional family farms, but essentially opened the state up to factory farming at their expense.

Subsequently, construction permits and proof of financial viability regulations were also eliminated.

Perhaps most insidious is that the Missouri Clean Water Commission, which is responsible for issuing permits to CAFOs, has been stacked with agricultural interests.  This has evolved because of legislation in 2016, which eliminated the requirement that four of the seven commissioners be independent and not aligned with any particular industry or special interest group. 

I personally witnessed this degradation of regulation during my 10 years on the Missouri Clean Water Commission, including two as chair. I was one of several sitting commissioners who fell victim to the purge that followed elimination of the non-partisanship requirement.

And now SB 391 has dumbed down the CAFO regulatory environment in Missouri to the lowest common denominator. Loss of local control removes the last line of defense for small communities and family farmers who lack the financial and political  clout to defend their way of life. 

The law goes into effect August 28.  The question of its “retroactivity” will undoubtedly be argued in court.

For some reason, politicians in Missouri have decided, with the urging and dollars of corporate agriculture and their powerful lobbyists, that — any time, any place — large confined animal feeding operations are good business for Missouri.  That mega-international conglomerates, many of which are foreign-owned, are more important than family farms, small communities, and the common folks of Missouri.

Important local deliberations regarding challenges to SB 391 are taking place as this article is being written. 

Two counties in southwest Missouri, Taney and Christian, with economies indelibly linked to clean water, are contemplating action ahead of the August 28 implementation of SB 391. Neither county has a single CAFO in it now. 

Taney County commissioners are considering enactment of a county health ordinance to control CAFOs, and those in Christian County are looking at tightening existing regulations to provide adequate protections. Any actions on their part will undoubtedly be met with legal challenges from the Farm Bureau and other powerful lobbyists with deep pockets. It will take courage to stand up for local controls on CAFOs, but neither county can afford to have its waters degraded.

I worry about the proliferation of confined animal feeding operations in Missouri, and in particular the Ozarks. 

I must confess to loving pork chops and chicken thighs like most of you.  What sets me off is when the CAFOs that produce them are force-placed next to fragile waterways and water tables, or near small communities that can’t stand the stench of corporate farms as neighbors and don’t want the devaluation of their health and property but don’t have the political or financial clout to defend themselves.

Such state and corporate over-reach is wrong. It must be confronted in county seats, in the courts, and in the voting booth.


Todd Parnell is the recently retired president of Drury University, co-founder and retired president of THE BANK in Springfield, civic leader, award-winning author inducted into the Missouri Writers Hall of Fame in 2012, environmental advocate as co-founder of the Upper White River Basin Foundation and retired chair of the Missouri Clean Water Commission, and eighth-generation native of the Ozarks.