A Clash Over Animal Waste
Environmental scientists and agribusiness have long been at odds over the impact of discharges from industrial-sized hog, poultry, beef and dairy farms. The latest arena for their battle: a blue-ribbon commission that has been studying the problem for three years.
The panel is expected to soon issue a major report calling for tighter regulation of microbial and chemical contaminants from farms that often keep thousands of animals in close confinement. But even as the group nears publication of its findings, accusations of interference, misinterpretation and intimidation have been flying, reports The Post's Dan Morgan.
The executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, Robert P. Martin, says: "From the very beginning, some members of the animal agriculture industry have tried to thwart our efforts. They have tried to intimidate us."
Complicating the commission's work is the fact that land grant colleges providing technical expertise also rely on funding from agribusiness. For a recent commission briefing on Capitol Hill, advocates for large agriculture businesses helped draft a statement signed by four academic experts who had earlier submitted a technical report on farm waste to the panel. The statement, distributed by the National Pork Producers Council, expressed "deep disappointment" about the way the commission had handled their data.
One of the academic experts, Leonard S. Bull, associate director of the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center at North Carolina State University, says: "There's been a suspicion about the motives of the commission from the beginning." Bull cites several sentences in a staff summary of the technical report that he says overstated his panel's findings.
Bull acknowledges that the Feb. 29 statement signed by him and three others had been drafted with the assistance of the Arlington, Va.-based Animal Agriculture Alliance, whose members include such agribusiness giants as Smithfield Foods, Inc., the world's largest producer of pork products. Bull says officials contacted him several days before the briefing and then "sent some bullet [points] and we worked back and forth on a draft. It was an interactive process."
Kay Johnson, executive director of the Alliance, says her group did help with the statement, but adds that the scientists "signed of their own free will and with their agreement that it was an accurate statement."
Bull's employer, North Carolina State University, a land grant college, has a grant from North Carolina Pork Producers, and receives support from the dairy and poultry industries, though most of its money comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bull says
Several years ago, the university was tapped by the state to manage a $17.5 million research effort to develop new technologies to address air and water contamination by animal feeding facilities. The money was supplied by Smithfield and another company as part of a settlement of a civil suit in which the state of Virginia charged violations of water pollution control laws.
"The whole issue underscores the problem with the lack of independent research on the issues this commission is studying," Martin says. He says it had been "apparent for some time that the authors [of the technical report on managing farm wastes] are in collusion with the industry."
But Martin also noted that experts at land grant colleges are in a tough position, given the importance of industry funding.
Bull doesn't disagree. He says: "It's true that because funding is not available from public sources, when it comes from private sources there's a vested interest somewhere."
--By Dan Morgan, exclusive to the Post Investigations blog.
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