On Aug. 25, the Humane Society of the United States announced the formation of the Illinois Agriculture Advisory Council, with the aim of promoting farmers and ranchers who produce animal products with high animal welfare and environmental standards.
“I’ve always wanted to do something with agriculture,” said Marc Ayers, Illinois state director of the Humane Society. “There were 11 other state agriculture advisory councils around the country, but Illinois is a huge agricultural state and I realized that we didn’t have one.” There are currently seven members on the advisory council, according to Ayers, primarily independent and family farmers engaged in the business of raising food animals humanely and in a sustainable manner, or otherwise involved in the field of animal agriculture.
Recent statewide public and legislative interest in “factory farm” reform was sparked by a multi-part 2016 Chicago Tribune investigation into factory farming practices. In a wide-ranging investigation that spanned dozens of Illinois counties and analyzed more than 20,000 pages of government documents, the Tribune found, among many other disturbing discoveries, that in addition to inhumane animal treatment, “pig waste flowing into rural waterways from leaks and spills destroyed more than 490,000 fish in 67 miles of rivers over a 10-year span. No other industry came close to causing that amount of damage.”
The work of agriculture advisory boards such as the one formed last month can take a variety of forms, according to Ayers. “The overall goal, though, is to support farmers and ranchers who are providing humane care to their animals and who will also reject the industrial animal agricultural model,” he explained. “The boards also promote environmentally sustainable production methods.”
The Humane Society’s message is that there is a viable and successful working alternative to the sorts of horrors depicted in the Tribune story. “Local family farmers are the folks who are doing this right,” Ayers said. “It is easy to criticize CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) due to the environmental degradation, air pollution, water pollution, animal welfare. What is important is to let folks know that giving business to your local family farmer and away from the industrial big ag model is the way to go.”
One of the major projects of the Illinois council, according to Ayers, is to examine the current Livestock Management Facilities Act. “This is a piece of legislation that hasn’t been updated since the 1990s,” he said. “It was written by the industry and for the industry and it has got to be updated, whether it’s about siting criteria or expansion loopholes. All of these things have got to be examined legislatively and that is going to be a big focus of the advisory council.”
Ayers said that legislation was put forward during the spring General Assembly session by the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project and the Coalition for Clean Air and Water which attempted to address such issues. “It didn’t get far because of the lobbying pressures from the Farm Bureau and others,” he said. “The Illinois Department of Agriculture should be a regulator of agribusiness – that is their job. However, they have been acting instead like a promoter of agribusiness, despite massive loopholes in state law.”
Leaving issues of animal welfare and environmental degradation aside, said Ayers, there is still plenty to be concerned about. “County boards will often have hearings where the locals get together – and I have never seen a single time where those people have accepted a CAFO. They consistently reject those plans and issue a (non-binding) recommendation to the state department of agriculture, which essentially tosses it into the trash, despite the objections of the county and the mayor. One of the primary purposes of the agricultural advisory council will be to give people a voice.”
Scott Faingold can be reached at email@example.com.