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Bob Lawrence: The Long View on Food System Reform

By: Christine Grillo

Earlier this year, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) paid tribute to physician, professor, and activist Dr. Bob Lawrence, who co-founded the organization in 1986 and has taken part in many international investigations of human rights abuses. He was deeply honored to share the stage with Syrian physician Houssam al-Nahhas and American nurse Dawn Wooten. The tribute happened to fall during the 25th anniversary year of another organization, one that was founded by Lawrence—The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, the mission of which is to support and advance a healthy, just, equitable and sustainable food system globally. It seemed like a good moment to ask him to reflect on the Center’s 25-year legacy, what it has accomplished, and where it’s heading.

As Lawrence reflected honestly on the food systems reform movement and the fight to change the factory farm model, a few themes emerged. Primary among them was his resolve to keep at it. Even when progress seems slow, he says, the fight itself is important. The Center has spent 25 years shining a light on the problems, paving the way to find the levers to address them.

Before diving into the Center’s accomplishments, Bob digressed to share a history lesson about a 1966 multilateral UN treaty known as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The treaty states that all humans have the right to food, water, health, housing, decent work, and more. Although President Jimmy Carter signed it in 1979, the US Senate has still not ratified it, and Lawrence finds this fact very telling.

In the US, especially among Republican lawmakers, there’s a lot of controversy around the idea that food, water, and health are rights. Food, water, and health should be goals, they insist, not rights. This pushback provides context for the uphill battle that is food system reform.

“We’re forced to take the long view on food system reform,” says Lawrence. “I think we all realize how much work is left.”

The Center for a Livable Future (CLF) was born of a conversation between Lawrence, former dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Alfred Sommer, and Henry Spira, an animal rights crusader who dreamed of reforming factory farms. So far, Henry Spira’s moonshot has not been realized. The factory farm proved to be a model too entrenched in the American corporate landscape to be affected significantly by data, science, or public health advocacy. Also known as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), a term created by the US Department of Agriculture, these operations have remained impervious to regulation, with a few important exceptions. The Center characterized the model of production as “industrial food animal production” (IFAP) in order to underscore the industrialization at the heart of the problem.

“We certainly haven’t shut down factory farms,” says Lawrence. “But we’ve raised awareness and forced them reluctantly to adopt modest reforms.”

One such reform came on the heels of CLF research into what happens as a result of feeding arsenicals to chicken, a practice that was common for preventing the illnesses that arise from overcrowding in their cages, and for growth promotion. The research showed that an inorganic form of arsenic—a known human carcinogen—accumulates in chicken breast meat and increases the risk of cancer in humans. In 2013, on the heels of this research, citing consumer health concerns, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suspended the marketing and sale of roxarsone and two other arsenic-based drugs. Lawrence contends that getting arsenicals out of the veterinary therapeutic stream was a victorious moment.

The Center also helped draw attention to the role of IFAP in antibiotic resistance, a threat that still hangs over us today. Producers routinely administer antibiotics to the entire lot of their animals for “disease prevention,” which works to also promote growth. A better, safer practice would be to reserve the drugs and use them selectively to treat illness in the livestock, because the more widely these drugs are used, the more likely it is that “superbugs” will evolve. Writing about this problem in 2013, Lawrence noted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report claiming that, annually in the United States, 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and 23,000 people died of the infections.

The FDA’s 2013 response to research by CLF and partners into antibiotic resistance fell short of CLF’s goals; the agency asked industry to voluntarily curb the misuse of antibiotics. The White House’s response in 2014 was disappointing, as well: President Obama issued an executive order recognizing the problem, but the order had no teeth.

To see CLF’s strong efforts on antibiotic resistance result in “voluntary guidelines” was disheartening. But Lawrence insists that the Center can claim victory for helping to get the issues out in the open.

While he’s not putting all his eggs in the “human behavior change” basket, Lawrence has a deep faith that enlightened consumers will make enlightened choices. He believes that awareness and education are critical elements of positive change. To his point, in the last five years, we’ve seen poultry producers such as Tyson and Perdue end the routine use of antibiotic use in much of their poultry production operations. Tyson and Perdue created a “no-antibiotics-ever” (NAE) label, and “antibiotic-free” has become almost common in poultry aisles. Because chickens have such short life cycles, removing antibiotics from their diets proved to be feasible—but will this trend extend to cattle and swine, which have longer life cycles? We will have to see.

“I think we have succeeded in putting these issues on the map in a way that they touch consumers, policymakers, and food producers,” Lawrence says.

Lawrence also points to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production as a triumphant moment for CLF for exposing the livestock industry's impact on the public’s health, the environment, farm communities, and animal health and well-being. That report, which was produced by an independent commission funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts with a grant to the Bloomberg School in 2008 (and updated in 2013), convened experts from the fields of veterinary medicine, medicine, agriculture, public health, business, government, rural advocacy, and animal welfare. It created a holistic approach for the Center, and other entities, to examine industrial livestock production through the lenses of public health, environment, animal welfare, and rural America.

“The Pew Report was a really big deal,” says Lawrence, and it laid the groundwork for CLF’s future work.

He also proudly points to CLF contributions to litigation concerning factory farms in Yakima Valley in Washington that resulted in meaningful outcomes for the residents filing suit. CLF has also supported residents of the Eastern Shore in Maryland as they seek to curb the expansion of poultry production operations in their rural towns. Efforts to pass legislation that would monitor for air pollution near poultry farms on the Eastern Shore have failed three years in a row, but passing new legislation takes many years and many tries.

He’d love to see better research into understanding human motivation, and he believes there’s still a lot of work that could be done in the sociology and anthropology of food choice determinants. “We know we’re bombarded by billions of dollars of marketing by food producers of unhealthy food and meat products, and so far, we have a feeble response on the part of good guys to counter that.”

But is it fair to ask individuals to change the system through personal choices alone, when what might actually be called for is policy change? Despite his belief in the power of consumer choice to change industry, Lawrence knows that policy reform is critical to meaningful change. Where food system reform efforts have had lackluster results, he lays much of the blame on our current political system that is dominated by corporate interests.

“Our elected officials are overwhelmingly misrepresenting our democracy,” he says. “It’s a deep flaw, and it’s haunting us in every policy domain. It’s the tyranny of the minority, and that’s what’s holding us back.”

He wonders whether, if he were just now finishing his education, he would devote himself to political activism from the get-go. “I might try to be part of a movement to fundamentally reform our constitution,” he says. “Our long-term survival as a democracy depends on solving misrepresentation.”

But this is the political system we have, so I asked him about a magic wand. If he had one, how would he use it to create the food system that the Center aspires to advance and support? He has a quick answer and speaks about two domains.

The first magic wand would strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency so it could vigorously enforce the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. By using that legislation to control pollution of air, soil, and water, we could make significant in-roads into industrialized food animal production, which notoriously pollutes rural communities with animal waste. Those rural communities most affected by IFAP are almost always low-income communities and communities of color; if the EPA could make progress on environmental justice, it would simultaneously effect some racial justice as well.

The second magic wand would address the complexity of the food systems by incentivizing regenerative food production and farm practices. Lawrence believes this could be achieved via reforms within the USDA, federal incentives for regenerative agriculture, and through overall economic reform.

But is economic reform in the wheelhouse of a research center such as CLF? “It may sound like mission creep, but we’ve seen how dangerous consolidation is,” says Lawrence, referring in part to the fact that only four producers control 82 percent of the meat supply in the United States.

“Big corporate interests that control the Senate are driving the political agenda, and taking us in an unsustainable direction,” he says. “We’ve got to take on issues like that. We’ve got to do systems thinking.”

Lawrence closes the reflection by recalling his upbringing.

“I was raised by a Calvinist theologian minister,” he says. “It sickens me now when I hear politicians talking about God’s will as an explanation for everything … and it’s so offensive to the idea of autonomy and what makes us human.”

He’s had a lot of conversations with his young-adult grandchildren about individual choices, and how the myths of rugged individualism and American exceptionalism have gotten us to this uncomfortable moment in history. As a society, he says, we’ve failed utterly at incorporating communitarian ideals into our culture and politics. None of us is truly alone, he says, and we all bear responsibility for others.

“That idea of being responsible to other people is at the heart of taking on large problems through policy and regulation,” he says. “Each of us has a duty to say, ‘How is this going to impact people around me?’”

For more perspectives on food system reform, check out the CLF Global Thought Leaders Series.

Image: Mike Milli, 2022.

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