TEDxManhattan Heroes: Michele Merkel

Photo courtesy of Food & Water Watch

Leading up to TEDxManhattan 2015, we've asked this year's speakers to introduce themselves by answering a few questions. Michele Merkel is the co-director of the Food & Water Justice Program at Food & Water Watch, and has an extensive background in environmental law and water protection.

What’s the topic you’ll be speaking about?

I will be talking about how citizens are using our environmental, and other laws, to confront pollution from industrial agricultural operations, commonly referred to as “factory farms”, in rural America. One of the ways that citizens have confronted these operations is by using the “citizen suit provisions” under our environmental statutes, which allow citizens to sue polluters when the government fails to enforce the law for political reasons or lack of resources. Citizens who live on the fence-line of factory farms have used these provisions to seek justice when these operations have poisoned waterways or emitted harmful air pollutants that make them sick.

However, these cases are extremely difficult to bring, because citizen plaintiffs in rural communities have few resources, little political power, and often face retaliation for even monitoring the activities of industrial agricultural operations. Moreover, the laws that underpin these cases are steadily eroding and new laws are being enacted that immunize illegal activity from citizen suits. We need to fight to create a baseline set of laws that put people over profits by holding our elected officials accountable, and by electing individuals who can help us to reclaim our food system and our democracy.

Why is this important?

It is important to support the efforts of rural communities to protect their legal rights in court. The courts are often their last line of defense when special interests and lobbyists bankroll harmful legislation and strong-arm state and federal agencies. From ending segregation to promoting freedom of speech to the recent California case striking down a ban on same-sex marriage, court victories have set the stage for greater equity and justice. However, when you are confronting entrenched power, the legal wins are often preceded by defeats and can come at great personal expense to those on the front lines. This is certainly true in the food movement, which is still in its nascent stages.

Sadly, because the ag lobby has been so successful at politically capturing state and federal elected officials, many of the lawsuits affecting food and agriculture are focused on fighting to preserve our most basic protections.

What role can the legal system play in improving our food system?

While the Court system isn’t perfect, it can be a level playing field for citizens, because issues are supposed to be decided on the facts and law, not based on which party has more power. In addition, courts are an important part of the system of checks and balances in our government, and can bring about significant change when legislatures or agencies are unwilling to act or overstep their bounds. Finally, “impact litigation” has the potential to effect widespread systemic change and reform in our food system, while helping individual clients to obtain relief.

What are a few of the most important legal cases affecting food and agriculture?

Legal actions are based on laws that Congress passes and regulations that agencies promulgate, and sadly, because the ag lobby has been so successful at politically capturing state and federal elected officials, many of the lawsuits affecting food and agriculture are focused on fighting to preserve our most basic protections.

For example, the industry has been incredibly successful at hiding their practices from the public eye. The industry has promoted “ag gag” laws designed to punish whistleblowers who would reveal animal abuse to the public and secrecy laws that bury evidence of their mismanagement of animal waste. They also lobby the FDA to keep secret their rampant antibiotic use.

Food & Water Watch believes that transparency is not only the most important building block upon which our environmental and public health laws were erected, it’s essential to a vibrant democracy. Therefore we have a case that seeks to force EPA to collect basic information about all factory farms, because EPA claims that they don’t even know where all of the factory farms are that should be regulated. We also have a case that seeks to maintain the integrity of the Freedom of Information Act that allows the public access to factory farm data. Likewise, we support state partners’ efforts to overturn ag gag laws and to force agencies to divulge factory farm waste handling and enforcement records.

Are there other projects you’re also passionate about right now – either yours or someone else’s?

I am very proud to be on the Board of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP). SRAP empowers rural communities to protect themselves from the devastating health, environmental, and economic impacts of factory farms. SRAP also provides proven tools and strategies for developing ecologically sound, economically viable, and humane alternatives to the industrial system of agriculture. Many of the SRAP employees are family farmers who not only fight factory farms in their own communities but also help other communities protect themselves from factory farms. They are some of the heroes that I speak of who are on the front lines, and who selflessly work to protect the true American farmer. Excitingly, Kendra Kimbirauskas, Chief Executive Officer of SRAP, will also be speaking at TEDxManhattan 2015, so make sure that you check out her talk!

The failure to stop massive consolidation has allowed a handful of companies to control the entire food chain from seeds to retail grocery chains. Enforcing our laws against this industry will force them to internalize the environmental, social, and other costs that the public now pays for...

If you could do one thing to change the food system, what would it be?

I would like to break up the tiny cabal of agribusinesses that have a stranglehold over every aspect of our food system. The failure to stop massive consolidation has allowed a handful of companies to control the entire food chain from seeds to retail grocery chains. One place to start is to enforce and improve our laws, including our antitrust laws. Enforcing our laws against this industry will force them to internalize the environmental, social, and other costs that the public now pays for, and will make it easier for sustainable farmers to compete.

Which other 2015 TEDxManhattan speakers are you excited about hearing? Which past speakers did you find particularly inspiring?

I have never been to a TEDxManhattan event, so I am really excited to meet and learn from all of the other speakers. One of the myths that the factory farm industry perpetuates is that their industrial food system is necessary to “feed the world.” I look forward to speaking with Joel Berg who works on hunger issues about how he would debunk this myth. I’m also looking forward to hearing from artists, including Henry Hargreaves and Ietef “DJ Cavem Moetavation” Vita. I teach dance as my hobby, and I witness how artistic expression can be transformative. Therefore, I’m excited to learn how their art is inspiring people to live healthier lives and to engage in the food movement.

There are so many wonderful past speakers and my goal to listen to every presentation. So far, I recommend Dr. Steve Wing’s presentation about the community health impacts from factory farms, Karen Hudson’s account of her personal fight against factory farms, and Lance Price’s presentation on the abuse of antibiotics in our food system. I also really love Tom Colicchio’s message to get politically active since I share that view and believe that without political activism we will never transform the current food system. Finally, I really enjoyed Lindsey Lusher Shute’s presentation about all of the great work that she is doing to cultivate and to support the next generation of sustainable farmers in the United States. Since I plan to be a new sustainable farmer someday, I now know who to call!

Where can more information about your project be found?

You can find more information about Food & Water Watch, and Food & Water Justice specifically, at www.foodandwaterwatch.org/food-water-justice.

TEDxManhattan, "Changing the Way We Eat," will take place March 7, 2015, at the TimesCenter in New York City. Interested in joining the day? You can apply to attend, or host or attend a viewing party.