Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 12, 2012. During the recent elections, North Dakotans voted to accept a controversial amendment to the North Dakota Constitution that protects practices used in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that are harmful to human health and the environment. The North Dakota Farming and Ranching Amendment states, “No law shall be enacted which abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices.” This amendment, supported by the North Dakota Farm Bureau, was created in response to pressure from organizations, such as the Humane Society and other organizations, that pushed for laws to ban small crates for chickens and pregnant pigs.
This constitutional amendment, which is vaguely and broadly worded, was designed to protect the use of CAFOs. These industrial operations are often viewed as cruel and can create significant problems for the environment and human health. The unsanitary conditions of CAFOs are produced by packing excessive numbers of animals into an unnatural environment. This process creates the risk of infectious disease outbreaks that would be averted under living conditions appropriate for animal species. To prevent these outbreaks from happening, CAFO operators feed sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics, such as penicillin and tetracycline, to livestock. This practice has become so common that, it accounts for upwards of 80% of those materials’ annual usage in the U.S.
Hundreds of organizations, including the American Medical Association (AMA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (IOM), have recommended that livestock producers be prohibited from using antibiotics for growth promotion if those antibiotics are also used in human medicine. Feeding sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to healthy livestock can lead to accelerated resistance among dangerous infectious organisms that can harm human health. In 2009, the Cook County Hospital in Illinois and the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics estimates that the total health care cost of antibiotic-resistant infections in the U.S. is $16 to $26 billion annually.
Fortunately, the animal uses of antibiotics my soon be banned, as a federal judge recently ruled that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must act promptly to determine whether to ban sub-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in livestock. Judge Theodore Katz ordered FDA to notify drug manufacturers of its intention to revoke approval for uses of penicillin and tetracycline to promote growth in livestock. However, as long as animals are confined to crowded spaces, antibiotics will be needed to stop the spread of large scale diseases.
Another environmental problem that CAFOs create is the animal waste that is produced from these operations. According to a recent report, CAFOs produce 133 million tons of manure per year (on a dry weight basis) representing 13-fold more solid waste than human sanitary waste production. Waste is often disposed of in wastewater lagoons through which the waste can leech into ground water. Water can also be contaminated as waste lagoons overflow or runoff from applications of waste to farm fields. This waste can contain heavy metals, pesticides such as dithiocrabamatees which are applied to spray fields, and the antibiotics which can lead to resistance among dangerous infectious organisms. Ingestion of contaminated water may result in diarrhea or other gastrointestinal tract distress from waterborne pathogens, and dermal contact during swimming may cause skin, eye, or ear infections.
This constitutional amendment is not only problematic because it gives unchecked power to CAFO operators, but also because it takes power away from local communities to control what happens near their homes and schools. According to the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU), which opposed the amendment, this new regulation would trump local and state laws. It is a form of preemption law which effectively denies local residents and decision makers their democratic right to better public health protection when the community decides that minimum standards set by state and federal law are insufficient to protect local public and environmental health. The NDFU also argues that the amendment doesn’t require that a farmer/rancher use sound agricultural practices or operate without negligence, as the measure guarantees an unlimited right to use any “modern” practice.
Beyond Pesticides strongly believes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification standard creates the safest guidelines for raising livestock. USDA organic certification standards prohibit treating livestock with any amount of antibiotics. The standards also require that producers maintain living conditions that prevent infectious diseases from becoming established and adversely impacting livestock health.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.