New Film Captures the Brutal Reality of Living Near Factory Farms | Civil Eats

New Film Captures the Brutal Reality of Living Near Factory Farms

“Right to Harm” takes viewers into the lives of those fighting the impacts of CAFOs in communities across the nation.

Maria Payan recalls her struggles living next to a massive broiler chicken operation.

In North Carolina, people recall being sprayed with liquid manure when giant hog farms move in next door. In Arizona, residents struggle to breathe outside their homes because of fumes emitted from massive barns housing 4 million laying hens. In Wisconsin, where large dairy operations abound, wells are contaminated with rotovirus and salmonella.

These are some of the communities that appear in Right to Harm, a new documentary about the people living beside concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the battles they’re waging to protect their health and quality of life.

Iowa County resident Gary Nester explains how a hog operation was built 750 feet from his home without the need for a permit.

Iowa County resident Gary Nester explains how a hog operation was built 750 feet from his home without the need for a permit.

It’s the latest project from Matt Wechsler and Annie Speicher, the filmmakers behind Sustainable, a film that shines a light on people producing food outside of the industrial system. In the process of making the first film, the team say they were tipped off to how communities living near factory farms were paying some of the invisible costs of “cheap” meat and dairy production.

“We wanted [Sustainable] to be about land and how these farmers were stewards of that land,” Wechsler said. “We knew we couldn’t include some of the stuff we were learning … so, we started the process of making this second film the day before we finished the first.”

Right to Harm introduces the audience to multiple communities that are either working to prevent additional factory farms from moving in, trying to get government agencies to regulate air and water pollution, or suing companies for making them sick and destroying their property values. Many of the groups are also connected by the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRAP), a national organization that has often flown under the radar as it has worked to help build community power in the face of CAFOs.

All of the efforts in the film are hampered by states’ “right to farm” laws (hence the title). These laws—which are on the books in all 50 states—were meant to prevent nuisance lawsuits by neighbors, and are often used by agribusinesses to skirt regulation and legal action. In recent years, the industry has been pushing states to tighten the laws even further in the wake of successful lawsuits like those taken up in North Carolina against Smithfield.

Right to Harm is an official selection at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and food journalist Mark Bittman is among its executive producers. Wechsler spoke with Civil Eats recently about making the film and the goals that extend beyond the theater.

What made you decide that it wasn’t enough to just show people what good farming practices looked like?

I come from a very conventional eating background…my parents can share stories of how I wouldn’t eat vegetables. I fell in love with cooking when I finally lived on my own, and started to love the idea of whole-food cooking, and then I watched Food, Inc. and realized I should be sourcing more organic, but I still wasn’t into farmers’ market experiences. I felt like if someone like me can convert to shopping at a farmers’ market and buying food from more sustainable outlets, then perhaps anybody can do that.

Annie Spiecher and Matt Wechsler, the filmmakers behind "Right to Harm."

Annie Spiecher and Matt Wechsler, the filmmakers behind “Right to Harm.”

What I came to realize … is that there are political factors that [keep] cheap food cheap. And how can we show that this cheap food system is inherently wrong and disproportionately affects some members of our society and is un-American in how it exists?

How did you find the communities and individuals all over the country that are profiled?

I was lucky to meet Kendra Kimbirauskas [also an executive producer of the film] at an event in New York; she was working with SRAP, [which is] a resource for all of these local communities to have legal help fighting factory farms. It was clear that, through Kendra, we could find some amazing stories. We wanted to show [factory farming] affecting all kinds of people with different economic backgrounds, political views, and racial backgrounds—all over the country. It’s a large cross-section across America, but it’s a population whose voices are lost in the wind.

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Sonia Lopez explains how living next to a massive egg factory has made it impossible to sell her home.

Sonia Lopez explains how living next to a massive egg factory has made it impossible to sell her home.

What surprised you the most while filming?

Honestly, I couldn’t believe how bad the smells were. I had just come off this whole film about ag where I had been on these amazing [sustainable] farms. Then I did the exact opposite. I grew up horseback riding a lot, and being out on a prairie on a horse and smelling manure was a pleasant, sweet smell that reminded me of nature. It’s the polar opposite with these confinement operations, [which emit] the most putrid, disgusting smells. It immediately gives you a headache, messes with your sinuses. Annie and I both experienced it. It puts you on edge, mentally. I can’t imagine dealing with it on a daily basis. Your spirit is just worn down, and it seems like that’s the goal of the industry, to get these people to move out.

How have audiences been reacting to the film so far?

There are two reactions that I see: There are people who are already fairly knowledgeable about this and they are just happy to see it getting out there. And the ones who don’t really know much about it … they are just speechless. They don’t even know whether or not to believe it. They almost don’t know what they’re watching, and whether to think that it’s some sort of propaganda.

People don’t want to believe the food they eat is harming people like this.

Your website says a “comprehensive social action campaign” is coming. What will that look like?

We’re hoping to launch pretty soon, hopefully by July 1. We’ll help people find local spots where they can source pasture-raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy and connect people to local community groups fighting these issues. We’ll be putting together a list of various campaigns from organizations to raise awareness or fight [for] regulation. And we’ll have solutions for anyone living next to a CAFO—a way for them to connect with large organizations that can help them in their battles.

Festival and public screenings, which will be posted on the film’s website, will ramp up in May and continue through the summer. Wechsler says the team is particularly focused on hosting screenings near the communities featured and in other rural areas “where there aren’t many opportunities to see films like this.”

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RIGHT TO HARM (2019) – Official Trailer from Hourglass Films on Vimeo.

Top photo: Maria Payan recalls her struggles living next to a massive broiler chicken operation. (All photos courtesy of Hourglass Films.)

This article was updated to reflect the fact that wells were contaminated with rotavirus, not norovirus.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Christina Russell
    Thank you, I have a autoimmune disease and now have to watch the air quality alerts which we have now in Iowa from CAFOs. I live in town and we are all effected now.
  2. Janis Howlett
    We have a lawsuit in Lancaster Co NE. Against Costco and A chicken CAFO. We
    could use all of the support we can get.
  3. Pam
    We have a cafo in a residential neighborhood, also near a hospital,nursing home and elementary school. We had a lawsuit and nothing came from it. It seems like a losing battle. Now they've passed a secure area ruling for our township. We've had a large community outpouring and yet feels like we aren't being heard. I understand they need to make a living but not at our expense. Who is here to protect us?!
  4. Chris Edginton
    I am one of Maria Payan’s neighbors that she is helping in Sussex County Delaware. Delmarva has a high concentration of chicken CAFOs and processing plants. Hopefully we will show it in our church this summer.
  5. Cafos are the most despicable thing to people animals and the environment. They get away with the worst atrocities known to man. These people stuck living near them have had their lives stolen. And nobody cares. Thank you so much for what you are doing. Cheap meat is also very dangerous to the many books on what is found in this.
    I just know that for the almighty dollar these monsters are profiting from ruining people's lives, animals and our drinking water and clean air. I do a lot of studying on this and have watched undercover videos from Mercy for Animals and this is an Animal Holocaust. The Jewish people agree...such a mirror image. My wish for this country is to shut every one of these torture chambers down. There would be no need for this crazy green new deal. It starts with these Cafos. Protein can be obtained from so many other sources and it is over rated...we don't need an enormous amount of protein to live. Looking forward to see your documentary and many thanks for shining a light on this grotesque subject.

    Mary E Steers
  6. Great documentary. Important issue for everyone. Watch Cowspiracy, streaming on Netflix. Go vegan to help save the planet and reclaim our humanity.
  7. Linda Brodeur
    Where can I view Right to Harm in Wisconsin?
    • You can sign up for local screenings via the Right to Harm website. It will be coming to Wisconsin soon.
  8. Zait Isa
    Keep up the good work. You are our inspiration.
    We are creating an organic agriculture exclusive zone along the border of Malaysia - Thailand.
    In Phase 1 the area will be about 350,000 sq km. In the next phase, it would cover most , if not all the farming areas in the 5 southern provinces of Thailand - Satun, Songkhla, Yala., Pattani and Narathiwat, ans 4 northern states of Malaysia - Perlis, Kedah, Perak, and Kelantan

    The Government of Malaysia had provided 'mild' support for the project. We called the project Regenerative Agriculture and Organic farming region of Thailand and Malaysia (RAOTHAM). Incidentally RAOTHAM means We Do (together) in the Thai language.

    We are waiting for the new government to be formed in Thailand (after their national election) a month ago.

    We hope to to invite you to do documentary on RAOTHAM in 2020, so that its 'good story' can be told to all concerned citizens of the planet

    Thank you very much

    Zait Isa
    Founder of RAOTHAM

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