Testimony Submitted to the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission by Mark Winne
Starting on April 13 and continuing into May, the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission is taking testimony on proposed changes to the state’s regulations governing the operation of dairy farms that qualify as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). National groups like Food and Water Watch and state organizations such as Amigos Bravos and the New Mexico chapter of the Sierra Club have taken a position that is generally supportive of the changes, while the dairy industry and its allied trade and industry groups are strongly opposed. As the nation’s seventh largest milk producing state that is home to 172 factory-scale dairies and 355,000 dairy cows, there is a lot at stake. Jobs, revenues, investments, and even a way of life for the farmers may be at risk. For everyone else, clean air and water, the quality of rural life, and even democratic control over the state’s resources may be in jeopardy. After all, two-thirds of the state’s dairy CAFOs are polluting their groundwater above the levels permitted by the state’s regulatory agencies.
While it may be overly dramatic to suggest that battle lines between good and evil are being drawn in New Mexico’s hard clay soil, there is something emblematic about this confrontation. For those who care about the direction of the nation’s food system, the continued growth in industrial farm operations will have consequences for the food we eat and the water we drink far into the future, not just in New Mexico but across North America. If factory farms are forced by regulators to pay the true cost of their operations – in other words, not externalize them as they do now – the playing field may be partially leveled. That would help the smaller dairy farms of the Northeast and Midwest compete with the behemoth milk machines of the West. Governmental agencies like New Mexico’s WQCC may be all that stand between healthy food and a clean environment, and a form of food production that, if left unchecked and under-regulated, will one day overrun the carrying capacity of the earth.
As someone who has reported on New Mexico’s dairy industry and the dairy industry in my former home region of New England, I recently submitted the following testimony to New Mexico’s WQCC.
I strongly support the regulatory changes proposed by the New Mexico Environment Department and urge the Water Quality Control Commission to also accept the proposed amendments offered by Food and Water Watch as well as a host of New Mexico organizations.
Over the course of reporting on the dairy industry (2005 to 2008) I learned that factory scale dairy farms came to New Mexico because land was cheap. Unfortunately, so were we. We asked little of the industry and got little in return. An underdeveloped state regulatory system could not keep up with the avalanche of groundwater permit applications. Limited funding and staff prevented the responsible agencies from keeping up with demand for new dairies and, as time went on, unable to sustain adequate monitoring and enforcement procedures as well. And while the agencies focused their limited resources on groundwater pollution, they were unable, and usually un-mandated, to look at a variety of public health and community impacts such as air pollution, increased crime rates, inadequate roads, and soaring cost of services resulting from so many large and often disruptive new dairy businesses.
In this lax regulatory climate – one that was supported by elected officials, economic development interests, and communities hungry for jobs – the dairy industry took full advantage. Traditional family farms and ranches (real family-scale operations, I might add) gave way to enormous CAFOs. Small businesses were supplanted by North America’s largest cheese plant. Once independent rural communities found themselves dependent on a single industry, the vast majority of whose owners were not from New Mexico.
The dairy industry’s environmental, social, and economic record has been well-documented by others over the course of this hearing. I need not recount it here. What I would like to comment on is the culture of arrogance and entitlement that is so pervasive among dairy owners and their business associations. During the course of my research over the past few years, county public health officials would only talk to me off the record for fear of losing their jobs if they publicly shared information about the industry’s behavior. At least one New Mexico State University researcher was kept from pursuing his early discovery of dairy-related public health problems after he reported his findings in a scientific journal. The dairy industry prevented the release of a publication that I wrote that recommended additional research be done on the economic and social impacts of New Mexico’s dairies. The organization that paid for the publication was told that if the publication was distributed, the industry would block all legislation which that organization proposed; that is legislation that pertained to such benign proposals as increasing market opportunities for small farmers and the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by New Mexico’s children. The industry’s influence was enhanced by its orchestrated practice of securing seats on county commissions and other governing bodies in order to block local attempts to restrict dairy operations. And its ability to sabotage virtually any state legislation that might run contrary to its interests is legendary. In partnership with other New Mexico agriculture interests, the dairy industry scuttled attempts in the legislature last year to bring workmen’s compensation insurance coverage to the state’s farm workers. This makes New Mexico one of only seven states to not mandate this most basic form of worker protection.
Like the tobacco industry before it, the dairy industry criticizes the science behind regulations, refers to government entities as “Big Brother,” threatens to move out of state if more regulations are imposed, and does everything in its power to postpone the day of reckoning. Its public relations efforts include billboard advertising that depicts a small number of Holsteins grazing peacefully on very green grass with a New England-style red barn in the background. Anyone who has seen a New Mexico dairy CAFO will know such images are fiction bordering on fraud. Their tag-line in every public presentation is to tell us they’re “just family farms” when everyone knows that who owns a business is not important; its how the business behaves that counts.
The proposed new regulations and amendments are designed to serve the public interest. They are sensible rules that will protect our health and preserve a legacy of clean air and water for generations of New Mexicans to come. As elected and appointed officials you are required in this way to manage our resources responsibly, and if the dairy industry can’t abide by these rules, if it doesn’t feel that it can operate profitably under these requirements, then it will have to go elsewhere. New Mexico can no longer allow anyone to conduct business in this state without paying the full cost of preventing damage to the environment and human health. If businesses don’t pay now, the citizens of New Mexico and our environment will pay later.