Courts Alone Can’t Save Farms – We Need a Healthy Farm Bill

NRDC and our partners filed a new lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), arguing that the agencies violated the law in their refusal to end the routine use of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture. Lawsuits remain a crucial tool for protecting human and environmental health – but we shouldn’t need the courts to build a healthy food system. We need farm policies – including a 2023 Farm Bill – that align our food economies with our public health goals. 

Black Angus cows and calves graze organic pastures, without antibiotics, at Nick’s Organic Farm in Adamstown, MD

Lance Cheung, USDA

Our recent report on the climate, health, and economic benefits of organic agriculture describes the underlying systems at play:

“[T]he dominant, conventional agriculture system is extractive and exploitative. It relies on fossil fuel-intensive synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that harm human health through contamination of air, water, and food. Large-scale conventional livestock operations are a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as environmental pollution that threatens neighboring communities. And conventional agriculture as a system disproportionately benefits corporate agribusiness—just a handful of companies—rather than farmers and consumers.”

Within this system, industrial livestock producers routinely feed medically important antibiotics to animals living in crowded conditions, overusing these precious medicines instead of raising animals in safer, healthier environments. FDA proposed banning this practice in 1973 because it threatens human health by driving the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And yet, five decades later, little has changed.

Meanwhile, the use of medically important antibiotics is growing in crop agriculture. This week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in our lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to allow a dramatic expansion of antibiotic use in citrus groves. Counsel for NRDC argued that the agency failed to seriously consider a core concern: that spraying antibiotics in fields will increase risks of antibiotic-resistant infections, particularly among farmworkers and in farming communities, noting that it’s not as if there’s an impermeable wall around citrus groves. Rather, we’re all connected, through air, water, soil, and food.

The practices at issue in these lawsuits are two of many harmful outgrowths of food policies that encourage agribusinesses to focus on yields and profits above all else, while placing heavy health burdens on food system workers, consumers, and the environment. U.S. consumers spend about $1.1 trillion on food, but the true system costs – taking into account impacts to human health, the environment, and society – are nearly triple that ($3.2 trillion), according to a 2021 analysis by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In 2023, we have a chance to do better. The next Farm Bill, a sweeping collection of food and farm policies readopted every five years, is being drafted now. This legislation directs billions of taxpayer dollars to programs that shape the agricultural economy and its impacts on food and health. 

To date, only a sliver of those Farm Bill dollars have supported organic and similar farming systems that help farming economies thrive without relying on routine overuse of precious antibiotics and harmful synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. For example, in 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) only spent about $71 million (2%) of its $3.6 billion Research, Education, and Economics budget on research directly relevant to organic agriculture.

Our growing antibiotic resistance crisis, the climate and chemical burdens on our farmworkers and communities, skyrocketing food costs, and the precariousness of our food chains all call for urgent attention in the Farm Bill. Organic agriculture offers holistic solutions to these problems – by raising animals with more time on pasture and without antibiotics, by building soil health and managing pests without harmful and expensive synthetic inputs, and by supporting regional food systems that are resilient in the face of many challenges. Our Farm Bill investments must help farmers leverage the economic opportunities in organic – and support healthy people and environments at the same time. 

About the Authors

Allison Johnson

Senior Attorney, Health & Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
Blog Post

Our food system is in peril, with increasing instability in agriculture from climate change, widespread food insecurity, and continued reliance on chemicals that threaten health and the environment. It is time to shift more attention—and resources—to time-tested, proven solutions. Organic agriculture is an ideal starting point.

Blog Post

Congress has a chance to pass a Farm Bill that will protect our climate, enhance biodiversity, and build healthier and more resilient communities.

Blog Post

A just-released FDA report, the latest in a series summarizing livestock antibiotic sales since 2009, shows that the agency’s approach to addressing the U.S livestock sector’s high-intensity use of medically important antibiotics is failing.

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