It’s Time to Put an End to Industrial Agriculture’s Relentless Pursuit of Secrecy

Big agriculture is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and yet several bills have been introduced to hide the industry's pollution.

As the climate crisis grows more pressing every day, individuals, companies, and governments at all levels are recognizing the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from all sectors of the economy. More recently, this recognition includes an understanding that this must include agriculture — a major but largely unacknowledged driver of climate change.

Lacking the visuals of spewing smokestacks or crowded freeways, agriculture is often overlooked as a large source of GHG emissions. While many still picture images of idyllic family farms when thinking about agriculture, much of the sector instead consists of enormous industrial facilities that release tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases. In fact, when all impacts are considered, agriculture’s contribution to climate change rivals that of the transportation sector.

How is it that one of the largest contributors to climate change has remained under the radar for so long? This oversight is not an accident; rather, it is the result of a long and calculated campaign by industrial agriculture and its political enablers to keep this sector’s climate harms hidden from public scrutiny. It’s time to lift this veil of secrecy. A step in the right direction is Congress’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which — for the first time — acknowledges the connection between climate change and agriculture and ties agricultural subsidies to the need to reduce net GHG emissions. The import of this recognition cannot be overstated, considering that just four years ago, the 2018 Farm Bill never mentioned climate change or greenhouse gases in its 800-plus pages.

This Congressional and administration recognition of agriculture’s climate impact is a sharp change from past efforts to shield this sector from disclosure of its environmental and public health harms or to even acknowledge such harms. Indeed, for decades, Big Ag has relentlessly and successfully lobbied to exempt industrial agriculture from the rules for public disclosure of pollution that most other sectors of our economy are subject to. For example, Congress specifically exempted industrial livestock facilities, the largest polluters of the deadly gases ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, from having to report these emissions to emergency response personnel, even though all other industries must do so in order to protect the public. Likewise, for over a decade, Congress has included riders in its annual spending bill that hamper the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to monitor and regulate greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture.

With this deep history of evasion, and so much at stake, it is not surprising that in response to recent efforts to connect industrial agriculture to its climate emissions, Big Ag has embarked on a full-frontal attack in Congress to continue to extend the special treatment this sector alone has long received. For example, just one month after Congress passed the groundbreaking IRA, Senators Thune (R-SD) and Ernst (R-IA) introduced a bill (S. 4850) to “prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from using funds [provided by the IRA] for methane monitoring to be used to monitor emissions of methane from livestock.” This would create a huge gap in our understanding of methane — a GHG over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years, since livestock is the largest source of this pollution, even larger than the entire oil & gas sector. Mandating that EPA intentionally ignore this major driver of climate change is planetary suicide.

Likewise, and in response to a recent proposed rule issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that would require regulated entities to disclose their climate impacts, Congressman Lucas (R-OK) introduced the Protect Farmers from the SEC Act (H.R.9063). The bill excludes agriculture — and only agriculture — from the SEC’s disclosure rule and garnered the support of over 100 Republican cosponsors in a matter of days. This push for secrecy comes despite investors’ demonstrated interest in knowing about companies’ risks from and contributions to the climate crisis, and the fact that agriculture companies are particularly at risk. As is often the case, this effort to exclude agriculture from disclosing what all other industries would have to disclose is buttressed by unsupported claims that this would be unduly burdensome for small farmers and ranchers. The fact is that the SEC’s proposal would only affect large industrial agriculture facilities that operate more like factories than farmhouses, and no small farmers would be subject to the rule.

Yet another dangerous bill from Senator Thune: the proposed Livestock Regulatory Pretection Act (S. 1475) would prevent the EPA from issuing Clean Air Act Title V permits for GHG emissions from livestock production. The bill is predicated on the false claim that regulatory oversight of the livestock sector is unnecessary given that its GHG emissions are insignificant. This is entirely unjustified given that scientists agree that we cannot meet our climate goals without significant reductions from the agriculture sector — animal agriculture in particular.

Enough is enough. If we are going to be serious about combatting climate change and protecting public health, policy makers can no longer choose to ignore a highly polluting industry and falsely raise concerns about small farmers as a red herring for their political expediency. It is time to stop giving industrial agriculture disclosure immunity and to recognize that information about emissions from this sector is crucial. While other industrial facilities are required by law to report their toxic releases, air and water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, tens of thousands of highly polluting livestock factories have essentially been given a free pass. These bills would only entrench this unwarranted and unjust treatment. Without basic information about emissions, communities across the country cannot take steps to protect their health, and the government won’t be able to determine what steps may be necessary to address the problem.

The largest industrial meat and agriculture companies have spent millions campaigning against climate action and sowing doubt about the links between agriculture (and especially livestock) and climate change. It is time to treat this industry as we do all others and to stop exempting them from the reporting and oversight that protects our communities, our air, our water, our health, and our planet.

Based in New York, Peter Lehner (@p_lehner) directs Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food & Farming Program, developing litigation, administrative, and legislative strategies to promote a more just and environmentally sound agricultural system and to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms from production of our food.

Based in Washington, D.C., Carrie is the deputy managing attorney of the Sustainable Food & Farming Program.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.

Cows at a factory farm.
Industrial livestock facilities are the largest polluters of the deadly gases ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. (Shutterstock)