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1st Friday Focus on the Environment: CAFOs pose increasing danger to Michigan's environmental health

Environmental Law & Policy Center staff attorney Katie Garvey.
Environmental Law & Policy Center
Environmental Law & Policy Center staff attorney Katie Garvey.


Katie Garvey is a Staff Attorney in ELPC’s Chicago office. She works to keep the Midwest’s waters clean and safe, including from agricultural runoff. During law school, Katie interned for Judge Lawrence M. McKenna for the South District of New York, as well as for Food and Water Watch, and she served as the Membership Editor for the Northwestern University Law Review. Before joining ELPC, Katie was a litigator at the Sidley Austin law firm handling complex cases and enforcement actions in federal and state courts around the country. There, she was awarded the Morsch Award and the Northern District of Illinois’ Award for Excellence in Pro Bono Service for her work in prisoners’ and immigration rights.


Lisa Wozniak
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor's degree and two ensuing master's degrees in social work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'


Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC)

ELPC: About Katie Garvey

ELPC Report: "Restoring Pure Michigan: Tackling Livestock Pollution to Protect Clean Water"

Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And, for years, we discussed the adverse impacts large scale animal farms have on our environment. There's a new report out now. And I think it's a fair statement to say it's worse than what we thought. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to the May edition of WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. These industrial livestock sites are known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. The report will focus on today is titled "Restoring Pure Michigan: Tackling Livestock Pollution to Protect Clean Water." My partner on WEMU's First Fridays is very concerned about what we are learning and wanted to find out more. Lisa Wozniak is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and thank you for bringing this to my attention, Lisa.

Lisa Wozniak: Well, I'm glad to be here, David, as always, and I'm very glad we can go directly to the source to learn more about these really vital concerns. The report was put out by the Environmental Law and Policy Center, or ELPC, and our guest today serves as a staff attorney at the center. Katie Garvey, I am delighted that you can join us. Thank you for making time for us today.

Katie Garvey: Thanks so much for having me.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Katie, you heard David say that it may be worse than we thought. Before we dive into the detail, is that a correct assumption?

Katie Garvey: Yes, Lisa. So, a lot of folks agree--scientists, academics, environmentalists, politicians--that nutrient runoff and other pollution coming from agriculture is a problem. It's causing E-coli pollution, and it's a key driver of harmful algal blooms. But one thing that nobody's really been able to agree on is how do we best solve this problem. There's been one approach that's been taken for many years. And many hundreds of millions of dollars just in the state of Michigan, not to mention other Midwestern states have been spent pursuing one, which is trying to get farmers of all sizes to adopt voluntary practices called "best management practices," in the hopes that doing so will reduce pollution. But the water quality data shows that the water is actually getting worse and not better, despite the many years and hundreds of millions of dollars.

David Fair: These industrial farms are an important part of our food system. They certainly contribute to our economy. You mentioned algal blooms. But beyond that, what are the tangible and adverse impacts of dealing with all of this animal waste that's generated in such concentrated areas?

Katie Garvey: Yes. Another type of pollution that people probably have heard of and might run into in their daily life is E-coli pollution. E-coli is a fecal coliform. It lives in the gut of warm-blooded animals. And when that gets into water, it causes bacterial pollution. So, if you've ever tried to go to a beach, for example, and there's a sign saying that the beach is closed due to contamination, that's usually E-coli pollution. These large facilities have significant air quality impact. They have very negative greenhouse gas emission impact, lots of tourism dollars, increased treatment cost--so drinking water. They often reduce property values. They're also among some of the most unsafe workplaces. And they raise a lot of animal welfare concerns. And also, the fact that these large scale facilities are not properly regulated and are not required to internalize the cost of their waste disposal, like other industrial polluters are. It means that they get an unfair advantage over smaller scale farms, which is a real economic harm that is also a result of these facilities.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Katie, I want to get a better picture of the amount of animal waste that we're talking about. As I understand it, there are approximately 290 permitted CAFOs just in Michigan. That's less, though, than 1% of all the total farms in our state. But if I understand this correctly, on a daily basis, these 290 CAFOs produce more waste--far more waste, in fact--than the entire human population of the entire state--17 million more pounds per day than the 10 million people who live here. What are the other agencies in our state doing to protect our waters?

Katie Garvey: Yeah, that's a good question. So, the main agencies in Michigan that are focused on various aspects of water are the Department of Natural Resources, EGLE, which is the primary regulatory body, and then MDARD, the Department of Ag also has some role. And in our report, we sort of addressed both EGLE and MDARD's roles. But really, one of the key recommendations that we have in our report is that these facilities, which, as you mentioned, are fewer than 1% of farms in Michigan. These are truly the biggest of the big. And they produce waste on a scale that is truly industrial, but they are not treated like other industrial polluters. One example is wastewater treatment, which is how we process human sewage, right? It's a very expensive process. And just to get a permit, a wastewater treatment plant has to pay, I think, it's over $250,000 per year for their permit. Now, a CAFO, their permit cost is only $600 per year, and they don't even have to treat their waste.

David Fair: You are listening to WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. We continue our conversation with Katie Garvey. She is staff attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, and they've just issued a new report on the environmental impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in the state of Michigan. Governor Whitmer's proposed fiscal year 2025 budget included money to bring in soil conservation district staff that would be responsible for executing the nutrient runoff programing. Do you think it would be helpful in addressing these issues we've discussed today?

Katie Garvey: My understanding is that that bill would bring certain employees who work with carrying out these conservation practices and sort of bring them in under the state's umbrella, as opposed to working for the soil and water conservation districts. In our report, we address the program that is really the primary program by which these conservation efforts are being monitored right now. It's called MAEAP. So, MAEAP is Michigan's Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. And in our report, we make a number of really specific recommendations about MAEAP. Right now, the way that MAEAP is structured, it is basically a program that facilitates giving technical assistance and funds to farmers who want to adopt what are called best management practices. Now, we view the way that MAEAP is being managed as is really not the best way. The primary reason is because MAEAP measure its success by how many farmers enroll in it, and it's a very small number. What we should be measuring is whether or not the measures that are being adopted--these best practices--are actually leading to better water quality results. So, in our recommendations, we suggest that MAEAP needs to be completely redesigned, instead of simply offering people to sort of pick from a menu of best management practices and implement them however and wherever they like--that there really needs to be help for folks to understand which part of their field are going to benefit from best management practices. It's one thing people don't realize is that, sometimes, best management practices can be beneficial on certain farms, but they can actually have negative water quality impacts if they're implemented in the wrong time and place.

David Fair: We're talking with Michigan League of Conservation Voters director Lisa Wozniak, our partner on WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. The topic today is the new report, "Restoring Pure Michigan: Tackling Livestock Pollution to Protect Clean Water." It was put forth by the Environmental Law and Policy Center, and our guest is their staff attorney, Katie Garvey.

Lisa Wozniak: Katie, while we debate these issues across the state, at the heart of this lies the future of the small family farm, which most people think of with a lot of, warm memories and thoughts. What is the impact on the small farmer in Michigan? And are we seeing a huge loss of non-CAFO farms in the state because of these large industrial practices?

Katie Garvey: Yes, Lisa. So, the USDA conducts what's called the agricultural census every five years. And that data showed a trend that has been ongoing for many years now, continuing both nationwide and in Michigan, which shows that the number of animals is either going up or staying the same, but the number of farms is rapidly decreasing. The biggest farms are receiving the most federal subsidies. So, according to that 2022 USDA data, farms earning less than $50,000 per year were by far the vast majority of farms in the country--94%. But they receive less than 50% of all federal subsidies. CAFOs in Michigan receive more than $103 million in direct federal subsidies between 1995 and 2014. That was an average of $387,000 per CAFO for that period. Now that are funds that are simply not going and not being spread equally among smaller farmers.

David Fair: Well, Congress is currently considering the next farm bill, the legislation that determines the agricultural and nutritional policy. Is it time to rethink the state and federal government support for industrial livestock operations and instead create further investment for the small family farmer in the interest of the environment?

Katie Garvey: It absolutely is time for us to to reconsider that. If federal subsidies and even state subsidies were, instead of being focused to CAFOs, were really focused on making sure they get to the small family farmers, the truly regenerative agricultural practitioners, that would go a long way in remodeling the food system.

David Fair: That is Environmental Law and Policy Center staff attorney Katie Garvey, helping us get a better understanding of the report issued by her organization. It's called "Restoring Pure Michigan: Tackling Livestock Pollution to Protect Clean Water." Now, the other voice you've heard this morning is that of my First Friday partner. Lisa Wozniak is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and I look forward to the next time, Lisa.

Lisa Wozniak: As do I, David. Thank you.

David Fair: I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Lisa Wozniak is Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
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