How Big Ag Is Borrowing Big Tobacco’s Playbook

John Ikerd February 13, 2018

Hogs in a concentrated animal feeding operation (left) and cigarettes in production.

Ques­tions of sound sci­ence” and bur­den of proof” invari­ably arise from con­flict­ing indict­ments and defens­es of indus­tri­al agri­cul­tur­al as either a threat or ser­vice to pub­lic inter­ests. Defend­ers invari­ably insist that any reg­u­la­tion of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture should be based on sound sci­ence, which places the bur­den of proof on the pub­lic rather than the per­pe­tra­tor. In the absence of a sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus, the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple would place the bur­den of proof on indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture rather than the pub­lic. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the agri­cul­tur­al agen­da of the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil (ALEC), the archi­tect of indus­tri­al agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy, lists its sup­port of sci­ence-based deci­sions” and oppo­si­tion to the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple” among its pub­lic pol­i­cy priorities.

In a recent col­umn, agri­cul­tur­al jour­nal­ist Alan Gue­bert wrote: For more than 20 years, farm and ranch groups, Con­gress, and Big Agbiz have used the phrase sound sci­ence’ like a sharp shov­el to under­mine agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy they want to alter or bury. Ask them to define sound sci­ence,’ how­ev­er, and you’ll get no clear expla­na­tion. That’s because sound sci­ence’ is a polit­i­cal weapon, not a branch of knowledge.”

Anoth­er recent col­umn by Wash­ing­ton Post health colum­nist, Christie Aschwan­den, points out, The sound sci­ence tac­tic exploits a fun­da­men­tal fea­ture of the sci­en­tif­ic process: Sci­ence does not pro­duce absolute cer­tain­ty. Sci­ence is a process rather than an answer.” It is not sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly cor­rect to claim that a giv­en sci­en­tif­ic study or col­lec­tion of stud­ies actu­al­ly prove any­thing. Sci­ence can only increase or decrease the con­fi­dence of sci­en­tists regard­ing the valid­i­ty of fal­la­cy of some­thing — not pro­vide absolute proof. Still, the defend­ers of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture do not accept even a sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus” as sound science.”

The term sound sci­ence” was actu­al­ly coined by the tobac­co indus­try in the ear­ly 1990s, when it was defend­ing itself against a grow­ing body of evi­dence indict­ing tobac­co smok­ing as a threat to pub­lic health. A 2001 Jour­nal of Pub­lic Health arti­cle stat­ed: Pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­als need to be aware that the sound sci­ence’ move­ment is not an indige­nous effort from with­in the pro­fes­sion to improve the qual­i­ty of sci­en­tif­ic dis­course, but reflects sophis­ti­cat­ed pub­lic rela­tions cam­paigns con­trolled by indus­try exec­u­tives and lawyers whose aim is to manip­u­late the stan­dards of sci­en­tif­ic proof to serve the cor­po­rate inter­ests of their clients.”

Indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture today is a sit­u­a­tion sim­i­lar to that of the tobac­co indus­try dur­ing the ear­ly 1990s. For exam­ple, a 2013 U.S. Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion report stat­ed: Sci­en­tists around the world have pro­vid­ed strong evi­dence that antibi­ot­ic use in food-pro­duc­ing ani­mals can harm pub­lic health. Resis­tant bac­te­ria can be trans­mit­ted from food-pro­duc­ing ani­mals to humans through the food supply.”

A 2016 glob­al sum­mit of Heads of State at the Unit­ed Nation­al Gen­er­al Assem­bly, con­clud­ed: The high lev­els of AMR [antimi­cro­bial resis­tance] already seen in the world today are the result of overuse and mis­use of antibi­otics and oth­er antimi­cro­bials in humans, ani­mals, and crops, as well as the spread of residues of these med­i­cines in soil, crops and water.” The state­ment con­tin­ues, Antimi­cro­bial resis­tance is a prob­lem not just in our hos­pi­tals, but on our farms and in our food, too. Agri­cul­ture must shoul­der its share of responsibility.”

Sim­i­lar sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus­es exist for sev­er­al oth­er pub­lic health risks posed by indus­tri­al ani­mal agri­cul­ture or Con­cen­trat­ed Ani­mal Feed­ing Oper­a­tions (CAFOs).

The only defense put forth by CAFO pro­po­nents is that there is no sci­en­tif­ic proof” that any spe­cif­ic CAFO rep­re­sents a spe­cif­ic pub­lic health risk. This is the same basic defense used by the tobac­co com­pa­ny sci­en­tists who called atten­tion to the many peo­ple who breathe sec­ond­hand smoke, or smoke them­selves, and nev­er suf­fer from lung can­cer or heart dis­ease. Risk does not imply cer­tain­ty. Most peo­ple who dri­ve aren’t injured in traf­fic acci­dents, but the gov­ern­ment impos­es and enforces traf­fic reg­u­la­tions to pro­tect pub­lic safe­ty. The con­sen­sus of pub­lic health sci­en­tists regard­ing the pub­lic health risks of CAFOs is clear, but there can be no proof of the unprovable.

Con­se­quent­ly, bur­den of proof” should not be inter­pret­ed as requir­ing absolute proof or cer­tain­ty but rather requir­ing a sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus.” Fur­ther­more, sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus does not require an absence of dis­sent or dis­agree­ment, but instead a pre­dom­i­nance or preva­lence of sci­en­tif­ic opinion.

The pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple holds that in cas­es of legit­i­mate dis­agree­ment, the bur­den of proof” that any result­ing harm would not” be severe or irre­versible falls upon those who are propos­ing the pol­i­cy or action, not on those who might be harmed. The pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple is wide­ly used in the prac­tice of med­i­cine, but defend­ers of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture argue that is should not be applied in cas­es of pub­lic health risks asso­ci­at­ed with indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture. I believe they are wrong and even­tu­al­ly will be chal­lenged suc­cess­ful­ly in court.

(Image: slideshare​.net)

Regard­less, there are cir­cum­stances where the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple clear­ly should be applied. In those cas­es where activ­i­ties that pose poten­tial pub­lic health risks are cur­rent­ly exempt­ed from gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion, the bur­den of proof clear­ly should fall on the ben­e­fi­cia­ry of the exemp­tion — not on the pub­lic. The grant of spe­cial priv­i­lege entails spe­cial respon­si­bil­i­ty. A pri­or­i­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty of any gov­ern­ment is to pro­tect pub­lic health and safe­ty. It sim­ply does not make sense that any gov­ern­ment body or agency would exempt an activ­i­ty from pub­lic health reg­u­la­tions with­out requir­ing a sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus that such activ­i­ties do not” rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant risk to pub­lic health.

In defi­ance of com­mon sense, CAFOs cur­rent­ly are exempt­ed from vir­tu­al­ly all pub­lic health reg­u­la­tions that apply to oth­er indus­tries pro­duc­ing com­pa­ra­ble quan­ti­ties and con­cen­tra­tions of tox­ic chem­i­cals and bio­log­i­cal wastes. Local gov­ern­ments are pro­hib­it­ed from reg­u­lat­ing agri­cul­ture as they reg­u­late oth­er local indus­tries. Recent right to farm” laws give cor­po­rate agri­cul­ture the legal right to pol­lute and plun­der rur­al Amer­i­ca pret­ty much as they please. The few exist­ing reg­u­la­tions of CAFOs are enforced only in response to com­plaints linked to spe­cif­ic violations.

In the absence of a sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus that CAFOs do not” pose sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic health risks, the bio­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal pol­lu­tants asso­ci­at­ed with indus­tri­al ani­mal pro­duc­tion should be reg­u­lat­ed the same as the bio­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal pol­lu­tants asso­ci­at­ed with man­u­fac­tur­ing or munic­i­pal waste dis­pos­al. The bur­den of proof clear­ly should be on pro­po­nents to prove that CAFOs do not” rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic health risk rather than on the pub­lic to prove they do. Authen­tic sound sci­ence” would require action — not pro­vide an excuse for inaction.

(Indus­tri­al Agri­cul­ture ver­sus the Pub­lic Inter­est” was first pub­lished on JohnIkerd​.com and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion. To sub­scribe to John’s blog, or to learn more about his books and speak­ing engage­ments, click here.)

John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in south­west Mis­souri. He received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agri­cul­tur­al eco­nom­ics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri. After work­ing in pri­vate indus­try, he spent 30 years in var­i­ous pro­fes­so­r­i­al posi­tions at North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty, Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty, Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri before retir­ing in ear­ly 2000. He now spends most of his time writ­ing and speak­ing on issues relat­ed to sus­tain­abil­i­ty with an empha­sis on eco­nom­ics and agri­cul­ture. He cur­rent­ly resides in Fair­field, Iowa and is the author of sev­er­al books includ­ing Essen­tials of Eco­nom­ic Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, Sus­tain­able Cap­i­tal­ism, A Return to Com­mon Sense and Cri­sis and Oppor­tu­ni­ty: Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in Amer­i­can Agri­cul­ture and A Rev­o­lu­tion of the Mid­dle.
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