Getting the Facts Straight on Environmental Review & Factory Farms

The Land Stewardship Project has been fighting a proposal making its way through the Minnesota Legislature this year that would double the size factory farms can be before environmental review is required. Proponents of the bill are pushing hard, and have been justifying this outrageous proposal by providing inaccurate information about the history of the use of environmental review in our state.

It’s time to set the record straight on basic facts related to environmental review. First, the current situation: current law is that factory farms over 1,000 animal units must undergo environmental review. Only 7 percent of feedlots in our state are in this size category. (One thousand animal units is equivalent to 3,333 hogs or 714 dairy cows or 1,000 steers.) The current threshold of 1,000 animal units is so large that only nine factory farms were required to do an environmental review in 2016. This proposed legislation would double the threshold to 2,000 animal units, a change in the law that would benefit a very select few special interests, putting more, and larger, factory farms in our rural communities.

Proponents of this legislation know such a change in the law is hard to justify. So they are using some revisionist history to misrepresent the story of environmental review in Minnesota. Specifically, they are inaccurately claiming that this proposal simply returns the threshold for environmental review to what it used to be. Some lawmakers are even saying that the threshold was lowered to study the issue of large feedlots and now that time has passed, it needs to be returned to 2,000 animal units.

This is simply wrong.

We want LSP members to know the facts. Factory hog farms started moving into Minnesota in a big way in the 1990's. Before large-scale factory hog farms arrived on the scene, swine operations were largely small- and moderate-sized farrow-to-finish operations, meaning the hogs were born and raised to market weight on the same farm. Factory farms changed that by dramatically increasing the size of hog operations and often doing the farrowing, weaning and finishing at two or three different sites.

This change in the industry meant that the “connected action” rule would apply when determining whether a proposed feedlot should undergo environmental review. The connected action rule says projects that are related because “(1) one project would directly induce the other, (2) one project is a prerequisite for the other, or (3) neither project is justified by itself” are considered for all intents and purposes one proposal when it comes to environmental review. This made sense, since the different production components of these large swine operations often sat in the vicinity of each other, were part of the same business enterprise and, when taken as a whole, had a dramatic impact on the overall community.

For several years, the threshold for requiring mandatory environmental review for feedlots was 2,000 animal units and included the application of the connected action rule. Corporate ag wanted to eliminate the connected action rule and have the many components of a factory hog operation considered as individual projects, which would have allowed them to build even bigger facilities with little environmental oversight. LSP farmer-members and others opposed this. Ultimately, in 1999 an agreement was reached that the connected action rule would not apply to feedlots, but that the trigger for environmental review would be lowered to 1,000 animal units. It has been that way ever since.

All of this is explained in an extensive document developed in the early 2000's called the Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) on Animal Agriculture in Minnesota. To read the section pertaining to the changes in the connected action rule, click here. The GEIS report lays out this history clearly in black-and-white. It’s time some of our legislators read that summary and refreshed their memories about the real history of environmental review in this state.

LSP Policy and Organizing Program director Bobby King can be reached at 612-722-6377 or via e-mail.