The Farm System Reform Act was introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) in the House of Representatives and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in the Senate. This legislation—supported by over 200 animal welfare, sustainable agriculture, environmental, and public health organizations—would help create a food system that is better for animals, farmers, communities, and the environment by phasing out large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and giving farmers the opportunity to transition to raising animals on pasture or to crop production.
The Purpose of the Farm System Reform Act
The Farm System Reform Act would prohibit the construction of new large CAFOs and the expansion of those currently operating, and require all large CAFOs (defined as facilities that exceed a certain number of animals1) to cease operating as large CAFOs by 2040. It also establishes a voluntary debt forgiveness and transition assistance program that provides CAFO owners with grants to pay off their operation’s debts and transition to raising pasture-based livestock, growing specialty crops, or organic commodity production. Additionally, this legislation would restore mandatory country-of-origin labeling, barring beef, pork and dairy produced from animals imported or raised in a foreign country from being labeled “Product of U.S.A.,” transfer liability for air and water pollution or other harms to corporate integrators rather than contract farmers, and make various amendments to the Packers and Stockyards Act to empower family farmers and ranchers.
Problems with CAFOs
On conventional CAFOs (often referred to as “factory farms”), animals are intensively confined, with limited, if any, access to the outdoors and few opportunities to exhibit natural behaviors. To prevent animals from injuring themselves and each other due to stress, crowding, and frustration, painful mutilations are performed, such as tail docking, dehorning, and beak trimming. According to the US Department of Agriculture, more than 72 percent of egg-laying hens are confined to battery cages, about 76 percent of sows are confined to gestation crates, and over 99 percent of pigs are not provided access to the outdoors. In accordance with industry standards, chickens raised for meat are given just 100 square inches of space—less than the 138 square inches they would need merely to spread one wing. Overall, about 85 percent of the billions of farm animals slaughtered in the United States annually are raised on these low-welfare factory farms.
Operations that meet the “large CAFO” threshold may house tens or hundreds of thousands of animals. While a farm’s size is not the sole indicator of the level of animal welfare, it is nearly impossible on operations of this scale to meet animals’ social and psychological needs—e.g., by allowing them the ability to express natural behaviors—and prevent them from living in a state of near-constant stress.
In addition to the negative impacts on animal welfare, CAFOs present serious risks to the environment and public health and diminish the quality of life in neighboring communities, often those of lower socioeconomic standing. Various studies confirm that the tremendous amount of waste generated by livestock operations contaminates water supplies with excessive nutrients, pathogens, and pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics and growth hormones.2 CAFOs also emit large amounts of pollutants that contribute to respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, and lung disease3 and are one of the largest emitters in this country of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change.4
Why This Legislation is Necessary
The current model of industrial animal agriculture that dominates our food system is unsustainable. Increased awareness of the adverse impacts factory farming has on animals, communities, and the environment continues to strengthen opposition to these operations.
According to a 2019 national survey released by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, more than 80 percent of respondents were concerned about air and water pollution, worker safety, and health problems associated with CAFOs, and 57 percent of those surveyed supported greater oversight of industrial animal agriculture.5
In addition to the aforementioned issues associated with CAFOs, the recent COVID-19 outbreak has amplified concerns over modern animal agriculture’s role in the spread of deadly pathogens and over the vulnerability to disruption when supply chains are highly consolidated. In a recent report, the United Nations Environment Programme identified unsustainable agricultural intensification—namely, the increased demand for animal protein that is driving the industrialization of animal production—as a major driver of zoonotic disease transmission. Close confinement, unsanitary conditions, and genetic homogeneity within factory farms greatly increases the risk of deadly diseases spreading and spilling over to humans.6 Additionally, the routine administration of antibiotics to farm animals—another byproduct of industrial farming—has contributed to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be passed to humans, resulting in life-threatening and potentially untreatable infections.7
The Farm System Reform Act would begin to address these critical issues and transform our food system in a way that benefits animals, farmers, the public, and the environment by phasing out the largest factory farms, incentivizing the transition to either crop production or higher-welfare farming, and shifting power from multinational corporations to small- and mid-sized family farms.
1. “Large CAFO” is defined as an operation that confines not less than (A) 700 mature dairy cows; 1,000 veal calves; 1,000 cattle other than mature dairy cows or veal calves; 2,500 weighing more than 55 pounds or less; 10,000 swine weighing less than 55 pounds; 500 horses; 10,000 sheep or lambs; 55,000 turkeys; 30,000 laying hens or broilers, or 5,000 ducks if a liquid manure handling system is used; or 125,000 chickens (other than laying hens), 82,000 laying hens, or 30,000 ducks if a system other than a liquid manure handling system is used.
2. Burkholder, JoAnn, et al. “Impacts of waste from concentrated animal feeding operations on water quality.” Environmental health perspectives 115.2 (2007): 308-312.
3. National Association of Local Boards of Health. “Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities.” (2010) available at https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf
4. U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the U.S.” (2011) available at https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_methane.php
5. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “Survey: Majority Of Voters Surveyed Support Greater Oversight Of Industrial Animal Farms.” (2019) available at https://clf.jhsph.edu/about-us/news/news-2019/survey-majority-voters-surveyed-support-greater-oversight-industrial-animal
6. United Nations Environment Programme. “Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how the break the chain of transmission.” (2020) available at https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32316/ZP.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
7. World Health Organization. “Antimicrobial resistance in the food chain.” (2017) available at https://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/antimicrobial-resistance/amrfoodchain/en/