Jessica Culpepper: Mobilizing Lawyers in the Fight for a Better Food System
At any given moment, Public Justice’s Food Project is juggling dozens of cases and advocacy projects to help address the injustices of large-scale industrial animal agriculture.
Jessica Culpepper, director of the Public Justice Food Project, talks about her vision for a food system that results in healthy, empowered communities and sustainable livelihoods for farmers — and why Public Justice is helping to organize lawyers to join the fight.
“Public Justice recognizes the power of the law to build movements that take on the biggest systemic challenges of our time.”
You’ve been at Public Justice for several years helping to shape its Food Project. How did you get involved in working for a better food system?
Jessica Culpepper: I was lucky enough to attend Warren Wilson College, which is a small sustainable farm school outside of Asheville, North Carolina. During my time there, in addition to getting a healthy background in how difficult it is to farm, I learned how hard it is for farmers who want to do it right to compete with corporate agribusiness. The laws and subsidies favored the big corporations, and the farmers were squeezed out of the marketplace because of corporate consolidation and control. I knew I wanted to stop these systems, so I went to law school specifically to do that.
I went to Georgetown Law, where there was a program called Curriculum B (Section 3). It is a divergence from your traditional approach to legal studies and focuses on how law is not in a vacuum, and is affected and changed by institutional systems (like government). There, I learned the principles of critical legal theory and critical race theory — and looked at the law through the lens of our shared history of white supremacy. My vision became dismantling those systems in animal agriculture, and particularly the disparate impact of the industry on people of color and rural communities — usually those with the least power.
I started as a fellow at the Humane Society of the U.S., where I got to work on a number of legal projects. When I got to develop my own, I came up with an administrative petition to the EPA to list concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as sources of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The petition caused massive industry backlash, and ended with an appropriations measure prohibiting the EPA from taking any action surrounding GHGs from agriculture. That lesson taught me that the most impactful work was work done in partnership with others to build power and think ahead to protect your work and your victories. Despite the hard lesson, I was hooked on the issues themselves, and knew that this was how I wanted to spend my career.
Why was the Food Project started?
JC: Public Justice created the Food Project in 2011 because the organization wanted to expand its impact to issues around food and health. It was really Leslie Brueckner’s vision and effort to focus that work on industrial animal agriculture, recognizing that it was the most outrageous and critical problem facing Americans in terms of our food and health, and that the inhumane treatment of animals in this system was unconscionable. Once Public Justice received a cy pres award from the Airborne class action to take on issues around food and health, that vision was realized. Cy pres awards are an invaluable way to honor and advance the interests of class members when complete dispersal of an award or settlement is not feasible. That investment, through Leslie’s leadership, led Public Justice to hire me, and I’ve been working to grow our vision and impact in this area ever since: First, with Dave Muraskin, who came on board four years after we began and expanded our analysis and the types of cases we were bringing to take a more holistic approach, and then with Ameesha Sampat, who focused on building our outreach and integrating our litigation tactics into broader campaigns with movement allies. Most recently, we got to bring on Brent Newell to grow our environmental justice and community-led work, particularly in the areas of clean air and climate change.
The four of us have worked hard to continue expanding Public Justice’s impact on the food system, but there was so much need for legal resources, and that need simply wasn’t being met. That’s why we are adding to our staff, to bring more high impact litigation done in collaboration with movement allies, and creating an attorney network to answer the call of those who are being harmed by industrial animal agriculture.
Public Justice occupies a unique space because our members are lawyers and firms who take on some of the worst corporate misconduct our nation has faced — our members have successfully stood up to the gun and auto industry, exposed pharmaceutical companies for deception, and stood with some of the most vulnerable people standing up to the most powerful institutions, including people abused in the Catholic Church. Our members are always ready to stand with us in our cases because they believe in the work we do, so we are putting energy into mobilizing trial lawyers around the country and bringing their talent and resources to the fight as well. And we know they will be leaders in our new network to build more resources to lend to this fight.
Why is Big Ag as big of a threat as Big Tobacco?
JC: Industrial animal agriculture, including the feed grown to support the industry, is the number one cause of water pollution in the U.S. This industry is also a primary driver of climate change and antibiotic resistance. We cannot solve these crises without reforming extractive industry practices that exist solely to increase corporate profit. Much like Big Tobacco, this industry thrives on secrets and its lobbyists to continue fooling consumers and forcing our institutions to prop it up.
Unlike Big Tobacco, Big Ag shields itself from criticism by using farmers as a mouthpiece for its corporate backers, making it harder for people to hold the industry accountable for its harms. That’s really at the root of why we’ve expanded our work to include building out resources that can take on this industry for exploiting our health and communities in pursuit of profits.
What is the most important reason to fight for a better food system?
JC: Food exists at the nexus of our most important issues — racial, labor and economic justice, public and environmental health, food security, corporate power and institutional bias, and how we see ourselves as a nation. These issues are intersecting at a critical point in our history around climate change, and we can’t solve our nation’s greatest challenges without changing the way our food is produced. Animal agriculture presents a rare opportunity where a just transition to pasture-based systems could not only be a primary solution to stopping warming — it could actually be a solution to massive carbon sequestration. Those same practices can also solve our water crises like the dead zone in the Gulf, the toxic algae in the Great Lakes, and the hundreds of communities with well water that could give them cancer or kill their babies.
The harms from this industry disproportionately impact people of color and rural communities, and this is an incredible opportunity to identify what unites us as a nation rather than what divides us. And if we can shift our institutions into supporting family farms over agribusiness, we can get farmers back in the driver’s seat, reinvesting in struggling rural communities and creating regional practices that work for everyone, not just corporations. The overwhelming majority of Americans support humane sustainable animal rearing practices and recent market shifts support that transition. I can hardly think of an area of our economy that is so central to our lives and can play such a big role is solving our most pressing crises.
What has been your biggest success at Public Justice?
JC: Our biggest success has been developing a power analysis that chips away at the exploitative industrial agriculture system. Public Justice recognizes the power of the law to build movements that take on the biggest systemic challenges of our time, and we use our expertise to take down barriers to justice and create new legal tools to bring to the fight. For example, when it became clear that the Clean Water Act wasn’t working to hold industry accountable, we worked with our partners to use the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act against industrial animal agriculture for the first time to show that these facilities weren’t using waste as fertilizer — they were just dumping it — and they had to clean it up.
Then we brought Dave on, and our power analysis shifted even further. Beyond fighting pollution, we began to create new tools to take on the systemic reasons the industry is thriving. For example, Dave developed a way to use the Packers and Stockyards Act to hold the poultry industry accountable to their growers for abusive practices. Most recently, Dave used the First Amendment to stop trade industry groups from taking farmers’ hard earned money through the beef checkoff program where that money benefited corporations, not the farmers paying for it. The checkoff was found to be unconstitutional — and now we are expanding the suit to 15 states. We are able to bring cases that the private bar can’t bring, and win, clearing the way for a better system.
We’re really proud of where our power analysis is able to take us, which is beyond just our legal victories. We see the law as an organizing tool. If the law isn’t being used in that way, it is a lost opportunity. You can win lawsuits and things don’t fundamentally change. But when you use litigation to break down barriers and build power, that is what chips away at these unfair systems.
How do you use the Food Project’s Attorney Network to build power in the movement?
JC: We want lawyers to share a passion for systems change, and the Attorney Network is a way to bring lawyers into the movement. They are powerful. Our members take on the biggest, baddest, most daunting foes. We partner up and use lawsuits for narrative shift and to help hold decision makers accountable. And, we help make sure attorneys are serving the needs on the ground.
The hope is that the Food Project Attorney Network will become a space where they will be educated about the institutional and structural challenges in agriculture that Public Justice is fighting so they can use those tools. They’re going to get to know movement allies on the ground — farmers, community groups, etc. They’re going to plug into people already fighting to build power in these communities.
Agricultural communities know best what they need. We need to help them achieve that. The last thing we want to do is bring in an extractive legal system to fight an extractive agricultural system. Enough attorneys have done that that it’s created a history and a concern. Attorneys should be aware of that history and come in with transparency. We can help them be good partners on the ground.
Also, we know more about fighting this industry in the courts than almost anybody, and there are real opportunities for lawyers to expand their practice into this area. Having Public Justice as a resource to keep in their back pocket takes a lot of the risk out when attorneys in private practice go it alone. Our membership model empowers the work that we do, and provides us an income stream that gives us the freedom to bring cases that might not be profitable, but that can bring about systems change.
Agribusiness is a powerful industry. How are they hitting back on your work?
JC: They have all the resources. One of the reasons we do things the way that we do them is because when we have a win in one area, the industry shifts and uses its power in other ways. We learned that we have to anticipate regulatory or legislative end runs by the industry. They use their capture of our institutions to undo the work we are doing in the courts. But that becomes impossible if you build enough power.
They are also still controlling the narrative. We represent a lot of independent farmers and ranchers. I would argue that Indiana Farmers Union, for example, knows better than anyone what’s going on with ag in Indiana, yet they aren’t controlling the narrative — the industry is, through its front groups like the Farm Bureau. When the Farm Bureau says Public Justice and its allies want to regulate you, they are really attempting to distract farmers from their own exploitation at the hands of the industry. So, we’re constantly hitting back at their entrenched narrative.
But, with all things, when we work together, we’re more successful than when we work alone. Alongside community groups or member attorneys, we’re building a meaningful movement to take on industry in the courts, in the media, and in statehouses to help build the fair, just and healthy agricultural system we want.
Learn more about the Public Justice Food Project at food.publicjustice.net.