CELDF is aiding communities who have decided the current system of unsustainable agriculture cannot preserve their land, their health, their income or their vision of a sustainable future. Read below the harms caused by unsustainable agriculture, how communities are organizing to stop them, and what you can do in your community.

Farms today are often run like shoe factories, seeking the maximum yield with minimum regard for the human and environmental consequences. As large industrialized farms focus on producing just one specialized commodity (corn, soybeans, dairy, cotton or cattle), the diverse family farms of 200 acre plots of land have essentially vanished[1] – as has the knowledge of sustainable and traditional practices. For thousands of years, it was common to rotate crops, use time-honored seeds and raise animals in pastures.[2] Today’s typical farm, however, consists of large-scale and mechanized monoculture, drum after drum of chemicals, and a market flooded with low-priced grain.[1] Farmers have lost their autonomy over how food is produced, often being kept in the dark even about the ingredients in their animals’ feed[1] This is an unsustainable model of agriculture.

Why does it matter?

There is an immense governmental system that props up unsustainable agriculture and food production at the expense of our communities. Agribusiness corporations use their “rights” under the law to prevent us from rejecting the damage offered up by conventional, large scale farming operations and mandating the type of agriculture that feeds our communities. And as the agribusiness industry increases its hold, communities are facing severe impacts to their water, soils, air, local economy, and quality of life, not to mention the loss of family and small farmers. Each week, an estimated 330 farms close their doors.[3]

Corn as unsustainable agriculture

A national heritage

The U.S. has a legacy of agrarianism and agricultural exceptionalism – the notion that agriculture is unique from other sectors of the economy. Many Americans recognize the small-scale farm as a national symbol of social and economic justice, virtue and democracy.[4] At one time the ideal citizen was thought of as a common farmer with rights to his land and the fruits of his labor. This notion of the common farmer, independent from industry, became the backbone of American society and lent support to strengthening local governments, which could best support these small family farms.[5] Today however, less than 2% of Americans live on farms, compared to 25% of Americans in 1930.[3]

Farming our land away

The corporatization of agriculture values profit over sustainability.

Industrial food animal production has degraded our water by leaking nitrates, pathogens, pharmaceuticals, hormones and other contaminants into ground and surface water, as well as filling the air with ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and other pollutants – causing a range of health and ecological problems.[1] Monoculture farming directly impairs the land, reducing the amount of water and nutrients the soil can retain, risking another Dust Bowl.[1] Agriculture claims 80-90% of water use in the U.S., and has depleted groundwater in parts of the Great Plains by up to 30%.[1]

But isn’t this inevitable if we’re going to eat for cheap? Not so. These risky practices are costly in and of themselves. Each year, an estimated 4 billion tons of soil and 130 billion tons of water are lost from U.S. cropland, translating into an economic loss of more than $27 billion.[6]

How far we’ve drifted

The farms of today are not only unsustainable in environmental terms, but in regard to the livelihood of family farms. While families may own the majority of farms, it is not the families who are in control. Corporations own the animals while farmers own the equipment, meaning the people in suits own the goods which make money and the people in overalls own the goods which cost money.[7] Further, the revenues of family farms continue to decline while production costs rise. This inequity has only widened.

By 2007, the top 9% of farms accounted for 77% of farm sales.[4] Meanwhile, chicken farmers, who produce over 160 million chickens a week, often live below the poverty line.[7] The estimated living expenses for the average family farm exceed $47,000 a year, though less than one in four American farms earns more than $50,000 a year.[8] In effect, those who run family-owned farms on their own land are serfs to corporate agriculture businesses, which continually dictate how to feed and house the chickens at the threat of being coerced out of business. Every day, an estimated 47 farms are boarded up.[3]

The law of the land

America’s representatives have fallen out of favor with farmers and into corporate pockets. Corporate lobbyists write the regulations with which their industry is supposed to comply, and all but the largest operations are exempt from regulating heavy metals, pathogens, antibiotics and the majority of air pollutants.[1]

Why so unsustainable?

Big corporate farms mean big business, and big dollars wield a lot of power in this country. While most of us were taught that the U.S. Constitution was written to protect the rights of human beings, communities regularly witness agribusiness wielding the constitution to override community decision-making. When residents try to prevent a corporation from moving in, they are threatened with a lawsuit for violating the corporation’s “rights.” Worse, residents confronting factory farm operations learn that their state government – with the help and at the behest of corporations – has legally authorized factory farming to take place. Laws such as Pennsylvania’s Right to Farm Act, and similar laws found in other states, define factory farming as a normal agricultural activity and prohibit municipalities from stopping or even regulating it. In Pennsylvania, the state legislature went even further, passing Act 38, which empowers the state Attorney General to sue a community if they try and stop factory farming.

Reap what you sow

Just like farming, if care is put into the process, the harvest is likely to bear fruit. Across 57 countries, farms that use sustainable methods such as planting multifunctional trees, integrating livestock into crop production, reducing tillage, and cautious pest control, were found to benefit enormously. The farms increased their crop yield by an average of 79% while using their water more efficiently and using fewer pesticides. The farms also showed greater resilience to climate change, improved nutrition and even reduced carbon emissions and rural poverty.[1] The benefits of sustainable agriculture are real – to local ecosystems, local economies, farmers, and communities. And yet, less than 1% of U.S. cropland is devoted to organic agriculture.[9]

What can you do?

CELDF has been at the forefront of this issue, helping residents, local groups and municipal officials ban factory farms near their homes and create the communities they envision. CELDF provides grassroots organizing, legal counsel and education to communities through programs like Democracy School, speaking at local meetings and other grassroots support.

In 2000, CELDF spearheaded the first anti-corporate farm ownership ordinance in Wells Township, Fulton County, Pennsylvania, which prohibits corporations from engaging in agriculture. Since then, we have assisted dozens of other communities to protect against unsustainable agriculture. Our ordinances have evolved, resulting in the current Food Bill of Rights, which provides for the humane treatment of livestock, prohibits trespass by GMOs, mandates chain restaurants and grocery stores to use food raised on local farms, denies harmful outside interference and provides for the Rights of Nature.

Take action. Demand a sustainable food system

If you or your community is threatened by factory farming, or trying to stop unsustainable agriculture from taking root in your community, contact CELDF and learn how to take action. You and your community have rights and CELDF is here to help you fight for them.


[1] Shannon, Kerry L., et al. “Food System Policy, Public Health, and Human Rights in the United States.” Annual review of public health 36 (2015): 151-173.
[2] http://science.jrank.org/pages/1870/Crop-Rotation-History.html
[3] Nothwehr, Dawn M. Ecological Footprints: An Essential Franciscan Guide for Faith and Sustainable Living. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2012. Pg. 236. Ebook.
[4] Raynolds, Laura T., and Elizabeth A. Bennett. “Domestic Fair Trade in the United States.” Handbook of Research on Fair Trade. N.p.: Edward Elger, 2015.
[5] Boundless. “Jefferson’s Agrarian Policy.” Boundless U.S. History. Boundless, 21 Jul. 2015. Retrieved 26 Aug 2015 from https://www.boundless.com/u-s-history/textbooks/boundless-u-s-history-textbook/the-federalist-era- 1789-1801-10/the-republican-alternative-88/jefferson-s-agrarian-policy-492-8248/
[6] http://www.dieoff.com/page40.htm
[7] http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2015/05/john-oliver-chicken-farmers
[8] http://realtruth.org/articles/100607-006-family.html
[9] http://ota.com/sites/default/files/indexed_files/StateOfOrganicIndustry_0.pdf