By Tom Parker
In 2013, Kansas lawmakers considered amending the current Kansas Corporate Farming Law with two bills, one for each legislative branch, that would have removed restrictions for agribusinesses with certain forms of ownership structure—corporate, in other words—to operate within the state. Among other changes, the Kansas Agriculture Growth and Rural Investment Initiative, as it was known, would have allowed any out-of-state agribusiness to operate anywhere in the state while simultaneously repealing provisions that allow counties to permit or deny dairy or swine production facilities. The bill didn’t pass.
That doesn’t mean that advocates for the current law should relax, however, said Tatiana Lin, Senior Analyst and Team Leader for the Kansas Health Institute. Similar bills are likely to be introduced in future legislative sessions, and opponents to unrestricted large-scale livestock operations need to be not only vigilant but have at their disposal evidence-based data that can project potential impacts or implications, both positive and negative.
That research, Lin said, has now been compiled in a Health Impact Assessment, or HIA, outlining potential health effects that could follow changes to the current law. Researchers solicited testimony from various stakeholder groups such as state officials, legislators, ag-based organizations, farmers, health care providers and residents, and surveyed 64 individuals living in counties with large-scale swine and/or dairy operations. Their advisory panel included the Kansas Farmers Union, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the Kansas Pork Association, the Kansas Cattleman’s Association, the Sierra Club, the Kansas Rural Center and others. The most commonly identified potential impact was an increase in the number of large-scale corporate swine and dairy operations.
Lin, who assisted in the research, presented her findings to members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual state convention held mid-December in Topeka.
The purpose of the assessment was to shape policy during discussions, Lin said. But first researchers had to identify obvious as well as not-so-obvious factors that impact health.
“For many years, we thought that our health was primarily shaped by our behaviors, by institutional factors, by sex, but there’s more to it than that,” she said. “The focus of public health was eating healthy, getting enough exercise and behavioral choices, but we now realize that we have to change other conditions. Environmental factors have very important impacts to our health.”
The methodology of the assessment was holistic, she said, and derived from two basic questions: how do large-scale swine or dairy operations impact residential property values, employment, economic development, water quantity and quality, the amount of waste produced and the effect of increased antibiotic use, and how do changes in these indicators impact the health of Kansans either for better or for worse. Special consideration was given to people with respiratory conditions and those living in close proximity to large-scale livestock operations, and maps were compiled showing which counties would be most heavily impacted by an influx of corporate swine and dairy farms.
The findings indicated that while increased corporate farming could have positive impacts on jobs and, as in some cases with dairy operations, on population growth, potential negative effects could impact property values, air, water and soil quality, and health issues involving the increased usage of antibiotics. Impacts on school funding, population and water use were either unclear or minimal, Lin said.
To mitigate or reduce impacts from an influx of large-scale swine and dairy operations, the Kansas Health Institute recommended that the Kansas legislature increase the minimum separation distance from dairy operations with 1,000 or more animal unit capacity to three miles for any habitable structure, an increase from the current three-quarter miles; increase the minimum separation distance from swine operations with 3,725 or more animal unit capacity to three miles, an increase from the current .95 miles; and identify appropriate agencies such as the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Dept. of Agriculture to review existing regulations and suggest changes based on the best available research.
Livestock operators should consider providing health insurance to employees, compensating neighboring property owners for negative impacts associated with livestock operations, and, when possible, locating new facilities based on the direction of the prevailing wind.
Agencies such as the KDHE and KDA should consider conducting a statewide study of nutrient utilization plans for existing large-scale operations; develop and implement a Kansas-specific siting tool to determine optimal siting conditions based on facility size, waste management, odor reduction, and prevailing wind and weather patterns; establish a publicly-available database of all regulated animal feeding operations in the state; explore the feasibility of monitoring the use of antibiotics in livestock operations; and restrict sub-therapeutic antibiotic use in livestock operations to antibiotic classes that aren’t used to treat human diseases.
“Our purpose was to make sure that if this bill becomes a law we have a good roadmap to maximize the positives and mitigate the potential risks,” Lin said.
During a subsequent question-and-answer session following Lin’s presentation, one Farmers Union member characterized the study as “deeply flawed and incomplete.” Farmers Union president Donn Teske agreed that the study wasn’t perfect but that in his opinion researchers started out with good intentions. At the very least, he said, it would give the organization data for when—not if—the bills get reintroduced into the legislature.
“At least we have some social consciousness to tap into,” he said.
Download: Potential Health Effects of Changes to the Kansas Corporate Farming Law Report here. Note: Large file, 4.9mb