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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Presidential Files: John Edwards on Animals and Rural America

Former Democratic Senator John Edwards has found himself in the center of the debate over factory farming.  When Edwards first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998, he defeated Republican incumbent Lauch Faircloth, who had been a large-scale, commercial hog farmer and operated in the second-largest hog-producing state.  Now, Edwards is spending much of his time in the number one hog-producing state, Iowa, and is running on a platform of protecting small farmers and rural communities from the environmental pollution and economic devastation caused by agribusiness.

Each year in the U.S., animals confined in industrial factory farms produce almost 500 million tons of manure, which frequently pollutes water and air and, in the process, harms rural communities.  Factory farm waste also emits greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change, and takes a toll on public health, too. In 2003, the American Public Health Association passed a resolution urging officials nationwide to adopt a moratorium on factory farms. Studies have found that neighbors report more frequent occurrences of headaches, excessive coughing, diarrhea, and burning eyes as well as respiratory problems, weakness, and nausea. Furthermore, recent studies have found that children who attend schools near factory farms suffer increased incidences of asthma.

200x200lotsofpigs_crowded It’s a real quality of life issue for people who live near factory farms, and Edwards’ credible background from an agricultural state and his attention to this issue appears to resonate in Iowa.  Earlier this year, he unveiled a "Hogs for Edwards" float in the Iowa State Fair Parade, and called for a national moratorium on the construction or expansion of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).  Edwards helped make factory farms part of the public discourse in Iowa, and it’s prompted other leading candidates such as Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama to come out with their own proposals to set restrictions on CAFOs and give local communities more control over where they’re built. To see presidential candidates with competing proposals on the scale of agriculture is a sign that this issue is gaining traction with voters, especially rural voters who are plagued by the rancid odors and fouled water spawned by factory farms in their communities.

Given Edwards’ attention to rural communities, it was not too surprising—though it was disappointing to animal advocates—that he became the latest presidential candidate to trot out his hunting bonafides.  It’s a wonder that candidates still feel obligated to pander to the gun lobby, especially as the number of hunters has been on a steady decline for decades.  According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunters now represent 5.5 percent of Americans 16 years and older, while wildlife watchers outnumber them by almost six-to-one, making up 31 percent.  Even in a rural state like Iowa, hunters are only 9.1 percent of adult residents, while wildlife watchers are 47.5 percent. Wildlife watchers also contribute more money than hunters to the economy.

To Edwards’ credit, his “Hunting and Fishing Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” is as much about the responsibilities of hunters as it is about the right to hunt.  He proposed several good ideas, such as setting up a commission to study the impacts of commercial game farms and captive hunting operations on native wildlife, and enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect lakes, streams, and oceans.

But there were terrible ideas, too.  Edwards suggested opening national parks to sport hunters, which would set a dangerous precedent.  There is a balancing of interests among public land users, and millions of acres of federal lands—national wildlife refuges, national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands—are already open to hunting.  National parks are among the few lands left where animals can have a respite from sport hunting, and where hikers, campers, wildlife watchers, and other park visitors—who have their own claim to nature’s beauty and bounty—can enjoy these wonders in relative quiet and safety. 

On a more positive note, Edwards also made an effort to reach out to the growing number of voters who care about the humane treatment of animals, and he was one of the first presidential candidates to release a statement on animal welfare.  In the policy statement, Edwards wrote about his three dogs—Bella, Rufus, and Lily—and the joy that animals bring to our lives.  He also outlined specific bills that he supported and co-sponsored when he served in the Senate, including legislation to stop cockfighting, bear poaching, and the processing of “downer” livestock.  And he expressed his support for other federal reforms, such as restricting abusive puppy mills, ensuring the safety of pet food, and stopping the trade in pet primates. 

During Edwards’ six years in the Senate, he also voted to protect dolphins from tuna nets and prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and he signed letters urging increased funding for the enforcement of animal welfare laws. He wasn’t with animal advocates every time—he voted, for example, in favor of using steel-jawed leghold traps and neck snares for commercial and recreational trapping on national wildlife refuges. But he was with the animals more times than not, and importantly, he has let voters know where he stands on animal welfare issues. I hope other presidential candidates will follow that example.

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