Model Food Bill of Rights
Communities across the country are facing the many problems associated with corporate control of agriculture. Called the corporatization of agriculture, it means that fewer and fewer people (acting through corporations) are controlling more and more of our food production. These are corporate directors deciding to grow genetically-modified food, deciding to use mass production for “efficiency,” deciding to use sewage sludge as fertilizer, and deciding to use chemicals, herbicides, and antibiotics to grow our food.
The corporatization of agriculture has caused 5 million independent and family farms to go under since the 1930s. They are unable to compete in the corporatized marketplace. This has had a devastating effect on local economies and rural communities.
One of the symptoms of the corporatization of agriculture is factory farming. Factory farms are farm operations where tens of thousands (often hundreds of thousands) of animals are crowded together in tightly packed warehouses, creating unhealthy and inhumane conditions.
Today, four corporations control over 85% of beef packing in the United States. Two corporations – Tyson and Smithfield – control over half of pork production. Forty percent of milk production is controlled by Dean Foods. With so much of food production controlled by so few, monolithic farming operations have become standard across the country.
Further, despite the claims of Big Ag, factory farms are not more efficient than smaller farms. Over the past 15 years, the dairy industry has concentrated millions of cows into warehouse-like conditions – causing over 50,000 dairy farms to close – yet milk production levels remain the same. Similarly, even as the pork industry has become more concentrated, we’re raising the same number of hogs today as we were in 1950.
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has partnered with more than 90 communities over the past decade to stop unsustainable corporate agricultural activities through grassroots organizing and local municipal law-making. Communities from across the country are now approaching us seeking to not only ban unsustainable agricultural practices, but to create sustainable food systems. In response to these requests, we developed a model Food Bill of Rights Ordinance.
While many recognize our present food production system is unsustainable, it’s much harder to understand why such a system is allowed to continue. And further, why communities are prohibited from putting in place the sustainable food systems they envision.
Through our work with communities, we have learned that there are core reasons why this system is not only allowed to perpetuate, but is encouraged and supported by our government.
First, there’s something known as corporate constitutional “rights.” Corporations have gained broad “rights” and powers under the U.S. Constitution over the past 200 years, wielding them over our communities to override democratic decision making. Thus they use the constitution to undermine community efforts to mandate sustainable agricultural practices, as well as to ensure that their right to conduct unsustainable practices is not interfered with.
In addition to corporate “rights,” state legislatures – at the behest of the agriculture industry – have put in place laws that preempt communities from saying “no” to corporate-dominated agriculture and “yes” to creating sustainable food systems. Indeed, communities facing the threat of factory farm operations learn that their state government has legally authorized factory farming to take place. Thus when communities contact their state environmental agency for help to stop a factory farm, they find that rather than helping them stop it, the agency is instead authorizing the factory farm to operate.
Corporate agribusiness lobbyists draft farm laws for Congress and our state legislators which govern how farming is practiced in this country and how food systems are regulated. Laws including Pennsylvania’s Right to Farm Act define factory farming as a “normal agricultural activity” and prohibit municipalities from stopping factory farming – or even trying to regulate them. In Pennsylvania, the state legislature went even further, passing Act 38 which empowers the state Attorney General to sue a community if they dare to try to stop factory farming. Communities find that their own elected officials are protecting the interests of Big Ag over the interests of the very communities they are supposed to represent.
Communities therefore find that they face not only corporate directors who wield their corporate “rights” to prevent residents from protecting their communities, but that their own state preempts them from doing so as well.
Corporate “rights” and state preemption together deny residents the right to determine what farming is going to look like in their communities. This means that communities are at the mercy of agricultural decisions made by Big Ag, hand-in-hand with our elected representatives. Those decisions protect the profits and unsustainable practices of industrial scale farming. The result is that residents are forced to accept the dumping of toxic sewage sludge on area farmland, the siting of factory farms, the planting of genetically modified seeds, and a host of other harms. These practices undermine any attempt to establish sustainable food systems.
What to Do?
Communities have determined that so long as this system of law remains in place – elevating the interests of corporate agriculture over the rights of communities to sustainably grown food – nothing will change. Claiming we are in favor of building local, sustainable food systems is not the same as providing the space for them to exist.
Rather, communities have found they need to frontally challenge the existing system of law that erects legal barriers in the form of corporate “rights” and state preemption that deny people their right to local self-government.
CELDF has been at the forefront of this issue, initially helping residents, local groups, and municipal officials to ban unsustainable agribusiness practices. In 1998 we began working with communities threatened with factory farms. We found language in the South Dakota state constitution protecting small family farms by banning factory farming. We adapted that language to municipalities, and in 2000, the first Anti-Corporate Farm Ownership Ordinance was adopted in Wells Township, Fulton County, Pennsylvania, prohibiting corporations from engaging in agriculture. A dozen communities now have similar ordinances in place.
Soon after, we began working with communities facing the land application of sewage sludge. Today, sewage sludge is dumped on fields where we grow our food. Using what we learned partnering with communities around the factory farm issue, we worked with communities to draft ordinances banning the dumping of sewage sludge on farmland. Over 80 communities have worked with us to enact these ordinances.
Today our ordinances have evolved from single-issue bans on unsustainable corporate activities, to become Community Bills of Rights which establish new frameworks of governance for communities. The bills of rights secure and protect the rights of people, their communities, and nature against actions which would interfere with those rights.
As more and more communities have sought our assistance around creating sustainable agricultural systems, CELDF developed a model Food Bill of Rights Ordinance. The model Bill of Rights establishes a right to sustainably and locally produced food, while banning unsustainable agricultural practices. This includes protections for local family farms, provides for the humane treatment of livestock, and prohibits trespass by genetically modified organisms. In addition, it removes those legal barriers which stand in the way of community food sustainability – such as corporate “rights” and state preemption.
We at CELDF, have begun to see the emergence of a new peoples' movement. One that recognizes the peoples’ inalienable right to local self-government, and elevates the rights of people, communities, and nature over the claimed “rights” of corporations and government preemption.
Together, we can determine the sustainable future of our own communities.
Want to learn more? Interested in what you can do to protect your community? Contact us at email@example.com.