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Corporate Control of Agriculture: The Environmental Ramifications of Big Ag

Since 2011, agricultural gag laws have been introduced in several states in order to prohibit undercover inquiries of factory farms and slaughterhouses. As whistleblowing employees and activists were conducting investigations with the intent of exposing the abuse performed by these agricultural corporations, state governments implemented gag laws to protect “well-meaning farmers” from animal rights and environmental organizations, citing alleged intentions to deceive the public with their presentations of evidence. However, the detrimental ramifications of this legislation outweigh the benefits. 

The enactment of agricultural gag laws came as a consequence of previously established ecoterrorism laws implemented to criminalize the destruction of private property by extremist groups. Twenty five states have attempted to enact gag laws, with ten being successful. In the remaining states, environmental activists have struck down the laws for being unconstitutional. Five states—Alabama, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and Arkansas—continue to impose gag laws on the general public.

The term “Big Ag” has become popularized to describe the modern conversion of farm ownership to major corporations instead of independent farmers. The monopolization of the agricultural sector has also consolidated legislative power into the hands of these corporations rather than individuals. Through political endorsements, Big Ag has effectively acquired the corporate power to legislate themselves in regards to pollution regulation and general health standards. 

The Harvard School of Law reports that agricultural corporations have made efforts to support and elect “friendly” politicians to aid them in lobbying against the Food and Drug Administration. According to Harvard’s report, the FDA has received numerous letters from governors, lieutenant governors, and senators opposing corporate regulation within the agricultural sector. In addition, members of Congress have threatened the FDA’s budget as a form of blackmail. The FDA’s approval of arsenic—a known carcinogen that increases muscle growth and pigmentation—within the meat industry clarifies the consequences of political intimidation. 

In 2017, Big Ag successfully convinced United States House Republicans to propose a bill that would exempt agricultural commodity groups from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA was established in 1967 to provide the public with the right to request access to corporate documentation. Exemption prohibits public knowledge of corporate action and essentially permits the company to operate covertly without the ability for citizens, such as journalists and reporters, to intervene. In 2015, the American Egg Board was caught undermining an independently owned competitor under false pretenses via a FOIA request.  Additionally, the same legal proposition intended to include these corporations in check-off programs that would be utilized to promote themselves with federal funding. The act was passed in 2018 as the Agricultural Appropriations Bill.

Slaughterhouses and factory farms within the United States alone are responsible for 55 million pounds of pollutant waste dumped into waterways each year. This includes blood, feces, grease, and chemicals such as undigested antibiotics and pharmaceuticals. Several of these agricultural plants are situated along the Mississippi River watershed which “drains an area of about 1.2 million square miles including all or parts of 32 states… about 40% of the continental United States.” According to the National Parks Service, the Mississippi River “exceeds water quality standards for mercury, bacteria, sediment, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).” PCBs are highly toxic, man-made industrial compounds that are lethal to humans if consumed, and are particularly threatening to the neurological development of fetuses and children. 

The contamination of crucial waterways not only poses public health hazards, but also generates grave ecological threats. Excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus enter waterways from fertilizers and pesticides present in runoff water. These elements are crucial for supporting algal growth. An overabundance of these chemicals causes the ecological phenomenon of algal bloom. Algal blooms are environmentally harmful since excessive microorganism populations consume the oxygen content of water regions, and block sunlight. This causes the aquatic organisms who reside in these ecosystems to suffocate, generating further disruption of the biome with the formation of “dead zones,” or uninhabited regions of water due to insufficient oxygen levels and severe biodiversity loss. 

Agriculturally-produced water pollution largely stems from the lack of enforcement in environmental legislation. In 1972, the EPA passed the Clean Water Act (CWA) to regulate water quality and pollution. Under the CWA, wastewater produced from industries would be monitored and limited to control national water contamination. Even so, the legislation has been poorly enforced by the EPA and has led to unregulated dumping of hazardous waste by agricultural industries with little to no consequence. 

According to the EPA, the penalty for violating the CWA is 15 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine. A report from a nonprofit organization called the Environmental Integrity Project revealed that three quarters of meat and poultry plants had violated at least one of the contamination limits identified by the legislation. The report stated that “at least 18 slaughterhouses among those studied racked up more than 100 violations per day from 2016 to 2018,” and that “eight of those 18 have not paid any fines at all during this time period.” 

Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest processor of meat and poultry, is currently the nation’s largest violator of the CWA. Twenty-six Tyson Foods plants in the United States have knowingly violated environmental legislation, with five listed among the top ten highest daily nitrogen pollution levels. As of 2017, these five plants discarded approximately 7,000 pounds of nitrogen waste daily into public waterways including the Missouri River and tributaries of the Mississippi River. 

In 2019, the EPA was sued by various environmental organizations for failing to hold Big Ag accountable for their violations of the CWA. The EPA conceded with a statement declaring they would modernize their standards for corporate pollution, but they have shown few signs of acting on their word. As of August 2021, the state of Kansas has even deemed the legislation as unconstitutional. Yet, non-profit organizations advocating against agricultural gag laws have still made significant progress in overturning the corporate-centered legislation in individual states.




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