The Most Important American Issue You Aren’t Thinking About

A new documentary sheds light on how factory farming is poisoning us, and how an unlikely coalition of citizens is fighting back

By Liel Leibovitz|June 20, 2019 12:00 AM


Ours is a contentious moment, with little if any agreement on what Jewish values truly mean or how they should inform, guide, and accelerate American society. As we waste our life force on silly quibbles on social media and in the press, there’s one issue no prominent Jewish leader is pursuing, an issue that embodies every single value the Jewish community should hold and one that every American, regardless of creed or political conviction, should get behind. To understand it, consider the story of Maria Payan.

Along with her husband, an Iranian immigrant, Payan had finally secured her slice of the American dream, a small but charming house in a beautiful stretch of York County, Pennsylvania. She took pleasure in watching her son, Michael, grow up, and hoped for many more happy years among the fields and the trees. But then Michael began vomiting as soon as he got off the school bus, and every time he took a bath, his skin would break out with large boils, each the size of his palm. When Payan took him to the doctor, she was told it could be cancer. Right then and there, she decided to move.

The reason for her son’s ailments was no mystery. They were caused by the massive CAFO that had moved in next door.

The acronym may not ring a bell, but the method it describes—a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation—is responsible for anywhere from 90 to 95% of the meat Americans eat each year. A stark departure from traditional agriculture, CAFOs crowd thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of animals into so-called no-land farms. Instead of pigs wallowing in the mud or cows grazing at the pasture, the animals are stacked into cages or pens and fed a cheap diet that is often low on natural nutrients and high on antibiotics. It’s why meat has gotten significantly cheaper, and also why Americans, having each consumed an average of 28 pounds of chicken in 1960, according to the National Chicken Council [2], last year devoured 93.5 pounds, more than three times as much. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are more than 20,000 CAFOs in America, and the number is growing.

That this method of factory farming—prevalent in America for at least three decades, when former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz urged farmers to “get big or get out”—is terrible and cruel to animals is obvious. But CAFOs are just as hazardous to humans, as a startling new documentary, slated for release later this year, shows. Entitled Right to Harm [3], the film tells the story of five rural communities across America devastated by CAFOs setting up shop in their neighborhoods.

The film was recommended to me by a colleague. I didn’t understand why at first. “You like horror movies,” she said.

Consider the following: The smallest CAFO, according to the Sierra Club [4], produces an amount of feces and urine that’s equivalent to the excretions of 16,000 human beings. That waste, often containing bacteria, hormones, and chemicals used in livestock care, is washed down with water and stored in manure pits. It is then pumped into tankers and driven to nearby fields, where it is emptied into pumping stations and applied into the soil by tractors. You hardly have to be a farming expert to understand how this practice frequently ends up with liquid manure seeping into water sources, leaving entire populations without clean water and exposing them to harmful substances every time they try to do something rudimentary like turn on the kitchen sink or use the shower.

More terrifying than any horror movie you’re likely to see, Right to Harm documents not only the utter devastation caused by CAFOs, but also the futile attempts by communities across the nation to fight the menaces poisoning their wells and making their children sick. Time and again, the film shows clusters of citizens petitioning their elected officials, only to meet with disinterest or worse. In one particularly riveting—and particularly maddening—moment in the movie, the residents of Maricopa County, Arizona, petition their Board of Health to act against the strong acrid odor emanating from a local CAFO that has already been issued a notice of violation by the county’s Air Quality Department. The CAFO’s affected neighbors tell their stories, but the board’s members try to sweep the problem away by arguing that odor is too subjective a thing to measure. Finally, they table the vote until a later date, a small victory in a war often marked by more decisive rejections, frequently sponsored by the deep pockets of Big Agra.

And yet, Right to Harm isn’t all grim. The activists it portrays stand out not only for their dedication and perseverance, but for two additional reasons as well. First, none of them fit the stereotypical profile of an activist. Dan Blackson, for example, spent his career working as a plant manager for a water reclamation facility and harboring a mild resentment of the green types that gave his employer trouble, finding them too radical to engage. After his retirement, he moved to a Tonopah, a quiet town in Maricopa County, and built himself a desert haven, complete with a little swing set in the backyard for his grandchildren to enjoy. His quiet enjoyment of his property lasted 15 years: When a CAFO housing 4 million egg-laying chickens moved in 2 miles away, Blackson was no longer able to spend any time in his yard. Soon after that, he developed respiratory issues caused by the polluted particles emanating from the chicken houses down the road. He joined his neighbors in the fight against the facility, an unlikely environmentalist in white sideburns and thick glasses.

Even more inspiring is the diversity of the coalitions coming together nationwide to battle the menace of CAFOs. Bucking the conventional wisdom about the partisan lines that keep Americans politically divided, Right to Harm shows unity in the fight: Struggling whites and hard-working African Americans and determined Latinos, newcomers and natural-born folks, young mothers and senior citizens—all come together to protect not just their property values but also a communal way of life interrupted by a big, rapacious industry. It’s the sort of big tent—call it centrist, call it populist—that should make anyone trying to figure out the future of American politics pause and think.

Matt Wechsler, the film’s co-director (together with Annie Speicher), said he stumbled on this story by accident. Working on his previous film, Sustainable, about the local food movement in America, he came across John Ikerd, an economics professor who had spent half of his career as a livestock marketing specialist and the other half repenting for what he eventually realized were the devastating policies he’d helped champion. When he and Speicher learned about CAFOs, Wechsler said, “our jaws just dropped. We haven’t come across it in any research or anything.”

But making Right to Harm appealed to Wechsler for another, personal reason. “I grew up in a kosher household,” he said, “and the label of kosher started to get to me. It wasn’t like I was eating the best food. My parents were making frozen veggies, and I didn’t want to eat them.” Rebelling against what he came to consider a meaningless label, Wechsler went off to college and abandoned his observance altogether, figuring that any dietary regime that didn’t insist on mindful consumption of healthy food wasn’t all that great to begin with. Then, however, he visited a farmer’s market for the first time, and all the old questions came flooding back.

“I started seeing all these labels,” he said. “Sustainable, local, organic, regenerative: It took me back to my thoughts on kosher, and the idea of a label that somehow represents what the food is.” This got him thinking about what Americans were eating, a story in which CAFOs are undeniably villainous.

“We have to start to deal with it,” he said of the industrial farming and its depravities. “If our food is produced in a way that’s inequitable for so many members of our society, is that American? Should that be allowed? Just so we can provide cheap meat?”

Historically, American Jewish communal organizations forged their place and asserted their influence in the broader community by taking the lead on issues that affected all Americans, the Civil Rights Movement being a very good example. Sadly, in recent decades, too much attention and too many resources have been devoted to transient issues full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. This is the opposite: An issue that speaks to the very core of who we are—as humans, as communities, and as a country. We all blather on about coming together and finding issues on which all of us—Democrats and Republicans, religious and secular, young and old— can agree and collaborate. This is it.

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