Once again, litigants are attacking production agriculture in North Carolina. Large verdicts have returned against Smithfield Foods, a large pork integrator that places its owned animals on custom feed floors. The latest trend is not to sue the actual farm operator, but rather sue the company that owns the hogs on contract to be fed by the producer. The lawyers attacked the anaerobic lagoons and the spraying of manure upon fields, asserting they were a public nuisance. In the North Carolina cases, despite the big headlines, the actual damages will be limited to $3 million dollars or less.
Interestingly, the North Carolina legislature responded by limiting the time line for neighbors filing lawsuits against farm operations to the first year that they are established or have a “fundamental” change. It also prohibits damages being awarded unless the farm operation has already had a criminal or regulatory sanction.
Concerningly, the federal legislators in farm states are making rumblings about a national prohibition on lawsuits against farm operations similar to the North Carolina measure. I am not a fan of a large federal government that provide blanket policy on how individuals use the land. The federal government’s foray in to land use management via the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers is not a shining example of how to achieve results. Each of the 50 states should retain its own power to determine land use decisions. The solution in Hawaii is not the same solution in Texas. In fact, in response to the North Carolina jury decision, speculation has begun that more swine operations will move west, to the Dakotas and other wide-open spaces where people are not. This action may be encouraged or discouraged by the people of South Dakota through its laws, as it should be. Perhaps they want more jobs and pork production, perhaps they don’t want the associated negative impacts. The people of South Dakota should make those decisions, not a federal blanket policy.
In other attacks on agriculture, Monsanto suffered a large verdict against it for allowing the use of Glyphosate (Roundup) without adequate warnings or research. Observers who are pro and anti chemical companies noted that the trial was less about science and more about corporate practices and indifferences towards discovering the potential harm of the product.
What is concerning about in both these cases is the attack on the perceived faceless, monolithic corporations. It is generally more palatable to sue a company than to sue an individual over a perceived wrong. As corporations continue to grow and independent producers are pushed out, the corporate face will be an easy one to attack. What appears to be a faceless corporation is actually thousands and thousands of employees and stock holders who will bear the economic costs of continued litigation. Those economic losses or fear of those losses will be passed along in the form of higher product costs to the end user, the farm operator. That farm operator has nobody to pass the costs on to.