One step forward, two steps back on Iowa water quality?

I seem to have jinxed things by praising Democratic state legislators who allowed the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ new clean water rules to go forward this week.

I learned yesterday from Iowa CCI, 1000 Friends of Iowa and the Iowa Environmental Council that a horrible bill, House File 2324, is being fast-tracked through the Iowa House. This bill was introduced to the House Agriculture Committee on Monday afternoon, and on Tuesday it was unanimously approved by a subcommittee and then the full House Agriculture Committee. An action alert from the Iowa Environmental Council explains the substance:

DNR has proposed rules that would require existing facilities need to have at least 100 days of storage, in order to qualify for an emergency exemption for winter application because of full storage structures.  But HF 2324 exempts confinement feeding operations constructed before July 1, 2009 from this rule.  Specifically the bill states:

“A confinement feeding operation constructed before July 1, 2009, and not expanded after that date is not required to construct or expand a manure storage structure to comply with this section.”  

Lack of adequate manure storage during winter months is a major cause of water pollution in Iowa.  Without adequate storage, farmers apply the manure to frozen or snow-covered farm fields, risking run-off into nearby streams at the first thaw or rain.

From a statement issued by Iowa CCI:

Iowa already suffers from some of the worst water quality in the nation. High levels of ammonia pollution all across Iowa were traced back to manure application on frozen and snow-covered ground. This bill would gut the state law that bans the spreading of manure on frozen and snow-covered ground by exempting more than 5,500 factory farms that were built before July 1, 2009 due to a lack of storage for their manure.

“Poor manure management is not an emergency,” [CCI Executive Director Hugh] Espey said.

The Environmental Protection Agency came down strongly in favor of a ban without exceptions last year.  Passage of this new legislation would be a clear violation of the Clean Water Act and would also undermine the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ authority to regulate factory farms.

Shame on the members of the House Agriculture Committee for fast-tracking this bill. Yet again, Iowa environmentalists have to fight efforts to circumvent DNR rules aimed at protecting the public interest. We should be making CAFOs pay for the harm they cause, not exempting them from reasonable manure storage requirements. But no, proponents want to rush through a gift for factory farms.

It’s a disgrace that a legislative committee unanimously recommended this bill, especially in a Democratic-controlled legislature. This kind of thing is one reason why I have stopped donating to the House and Senate Democratic leadership committees.

Last year many legislators tried to circumvent the DNR’s rule-making on the application of manure on frozen ground, prompting several Iowa non-profits to spend staff time and energy mobilizing against the bad bill. By a minor miracle, last-minute amendments greatly improved that bill before it passed in the closing days of the 2009 session.

The Iowa Environmental Council makes it easy for you to send an e-mail urging your state legislators to vote down HF 2324. But some lawmakers don’t read all their e-mail, so I recommend calling your representative as well. The House switchboard is 515-281-3221.  

UPDATE: Adam Mason of Iowa CCI informed me that another bad bill, House File 2365, was introduced in the House Agriculture Committee yesterday. It would change the definition of a “residence” in proximity to a CAFO, excluding homes that are “off the grid.” Iowa law restricts how close factory farms can be to residences, but this bill would make it harder for some homeowners to fight a factory farm permit. So far HF 2365 hasn’t received subcommittee or full committee approval, but it bears watching.

SECOND UPDATE: There is also an Iowa Senate version of the bill that would undermine regulations on winter spreading of manure: it’s Senate File 2229. It was referred to a subcommittee on February 9, but no further action has been taken as of February 14.  

Continue Reading...

ACTION: Help preserve public input on CAFOs

The state Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) is considering new rules that would limit public input during the permit approval process for confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Iowa. Up to now, members of the public have been able to speak before the EPC concerning proposed new CAFOs. Under the new rules, only representatives of the entity applying for the permit, the county board of supervisors, and the Department of Natural Resources would be able to speak at EPC hearings on CAFO permits. People and entities that might be affected by downstream or downwind pollution from the proposed CAFO would not be allowed to speak at such hearings.

The public can submit comments on the new rule through this Thursday, August 6.

After the jump I’ve posted action alerts sent out by 1000 Friends of Iowa and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. They contain some talking points for public comments and contact information for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Iowa CCI also mentions two points worth preserving in the new rule, which industrial agriculture interests are apparently trying to have removed.

Comments must be received by Thursday, so if you are using the regular mail, please send your letter as soon as possible. There are also three DNR public hearings this week in Spencer, Des Moines and Ainsworth (details below).

I’ve also posted two pieces containing further background information after the jump. These may help you prepare comments to submit to the DNR. Shearon Elderkin discusses a controversial EPC decision last summer, which prompted the rewriting of the rules on the CAFO permit application process. Elderkin served on the EPC from August 2008 through April 2009. She had to step down when Iowa Senate Republicans blocked her confirmation for the position.

The final document you can find below is by Cedar Rapids attorney David Elderkin, Shearon’s husband. He covers the legal issues at hand in more detail.

Please take a few minutes to submit a public comment on this issue by Thursday, August 6. Please forward to any friends or relatives in Iowa who might be willing to comment as well.

Continue Reading...

Eat pork that's not factory-farmed

Government officials and pork industry representatives are working hard to convince the public that it’s still safe to eat pork despite the rapidly spreading swine flu virus that may have already infected two Iowans.

They are correct that there is no risk of contracting the flu from eating pork.

Some Mexican news reports have linked the swine flu outbreak to conditions in factory farms owned by the Smithfield Foods corporation. Smithfield released a statement saying the company “has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico.” However, many commentaries have highlighted the ways that confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) may contribute to the spread of disease. See this post by Ellinorianne or articles linked in this post by Jill Richardson.

Whether or not the swine flu outbreak is ever conclusively linked to CAFOs, there is already overwhelming evidence of problems with the current model for raising hogs industrially. Charles Lemos briefly covered them in this post. For more detail, read last year’s report by the Union of Concerned Scientists: CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations. Also last year, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production issued its final report on “Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.”  The authors concluded that “The current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves […].” There are many resources on the Save Antibiotics site as well.

For some people, including April Streeter of the Treehugger blog, problems with the CAFO model warrant giving up pork altogether.

I would encourage those who enjoy pork to choose meat from sustainable producers instead. Depending on where you live, it may be hard to find pork that hasn’t been factory-farmed because of the massive consolidation in the pork industry during the past decade or two (see also here).

Central Iowa residents are fortunate to have the Iowa Food Cooperative close by. Several different farmers raising hogs organically, or on pasture without hormones and antibiotics, sell a wide range of pork products through the coop.

If you don’t live near a store or market that sells sustainable meat, an advocacy organization such as Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture or the Women, Food and Agriculture Network may be able to put you in touch with a farmer who sells pork directly to consumers.

Sustainable meat can be expensive, but you can reduce the cost by buying directly from the farmer. If you have a chest freezer and buy in large quantities, the price per pound can drop down into the range you would pay for lower-quality conventionally raised meat.

UPDATE: Jill Richardson linked to an interview Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack gave CNN today, in which he talked about eating pork every day. Vilsack echoed industry talking points about how the media should be calling this virus by its scientific name, H1N1, instead of using the term “swine flu.” I agree with Jill:

Whether or not this flu came from a factory farm, I don’t think the fact that factory farms are a problem is really up for debate. Vilsack comes from a state totally overrun by them so he should know best.

Continue Reading...

The failure of leadership behind that pig odor earmark

President Barack Obama proposed reforms to the Congressional earmarking process on Wednesday:

• Members’ earmark requests should be posted on their Web sites.

• There should be public hearings on earmark requests “where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer.”

• Any earmark for a for-profit company would have to be competitively bid.

The reforms are intended to deflect criticism after Obama signed the $410 billion 2009 omnibus spending bill, which included about $7.7 billion in earmarks.

I have no time for the Republican Party’s blatant hypocrisy on what is really a “phantom problem”. Republican members of Congress secure plenty of earmarks for their own states even as they posture against “pork.” They don’t seem to care about sweetheart deals and no-bid contracts awarded by executive agencies, which cost taxpayers much more than all earmarks combined.

Beltway journalists have been following the Republican script, focusing way too much on earmarks, even though they are “inconsequential”:

Not only do they represent less than one percent of the federal budget, eliminating them wouldn’t even reduce federal spending by even that tiny amount, or any amount at all, since earmarks by definition simply tag the spending in an already established pot of money, such as the Community Development Block Grant. The only question is whether decisions about funding individual projects should be made by Congress — through earmarks — or by a supposedly apolitical administrative process.

Furthermore, Jonathan Singer points out, earmarks simply don’t register when Americans are asked an open-ended question about their concerns.

I’m all for the reforms Obama announced yesterday, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they will make a dent in government spending.

Although I think concerns about earmarks are exaggerated, I do want to examine the origin of Senator Tom Harkin’s $1.8 million earmark for studying odors from large hog confinements (CAFOs) in Iowa. It has become the poster child for Republican taunts about useless earmarks, prompting Harkin to defend himself (see here and here).

Follow me after the jump for more on why the federal government is funding this study. The earmark has its roots in unfortunate decisions that Iowa Democratic leaders made last year–with the enthusiastic support of statehouse Republicans and corporate ag groups.

Continue Reading...

Highlights and analysis of the Vilsack confirmation hearing

Tom Vilsack appears to be on track for unanimous confirmation by the Senate as Secretary of Agriculture in Barack Obama’s cabinet. At his confirmation hearing yesterday, Republicans didn’t ask hostile questions, and Vilsack didn’t have to explain away any embarrassing behavior like Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner’s failure to fully meet his tax obligations over a period of years.

Despite the lack of drama, Vilsack made a number of noteworthy comments during the hearing. Here are some highlights.

Vilsack told senators on Wednesday that

The Obama administration wants to accelerate the development of new versions of biofuels made form crop residue and non-food crops such as switchgrass. The plants’ fibrous material, or cellulose, can be converted into alcohols or even new versions of gasoline or diesel.

“Moving toward next-generation biofuels, cellulosic ethanol, is going to be really important in order to respond” to concerns about the impact on food prices of using grain for fuel, he said.

Vilsack addressed a range of other issues, pledging, for example, to promote fruit and vegetable consumption and promising to ensure that any new international trade agreement is a “net plus for all of agriculture.”

It makes a lot of sense to produce ethanol from perennial plants that are less energy-intensive to grow and need fewer herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer than corn.

Vilsack’s opening statement also

promised swift implementation of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) which, alone among farm bill conservation programs, has languished under the Bush Administration since passage of the 2008 Farm Bill last May.

A little later during the hearing, Vilsack described the Conservation Stewardship Program as important for the environment and cited its potential to boost farm income and create jobs.

By the way, Vilsack’s disclosure documents show that he collects payments from the US Department of Agriculture on some Iowa farmland he and his wife own:

The former Iowa governor and his wife, Christie, have been receiving payments since 2000 for an acreage in Davis County that is enrolled in the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program, according to USDA data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

In a Jan. 8 letter to USDA ethics officials, Vilsack said he would seek a waiver to continue receiving CRP payments while he is secretary. Otherwise, experts said, he would have to break his contract and reimburse the USDA for all previous payments he has received, which would total nearly $60,000.

Craig Cox, Midwest vice president of the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, welcomed having an agriculture secretary who receives conservation payments.

At a time “when simultaneously protecting our soil, water, wildlife habitat and climate is an urgent priority, it is encouraging that our new secretary of agriculture is personally participating in a conservation program that does just that,” he said.

I’m with Cox; it’s good for the secretary of agriculture to have first-hand knowledge of the conservation reserve program’s value.

Earlier this week the Register published an article on the opening statement Vilsack prepared for his confirmation hearing:

Tom Vilsack is promising to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “aggressively address” global warming and energy independence.

In an opening statement prepared for his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for agriculture secretary also said he would use the department to “create real and meaningful opportunities” for farmers and to guarantee that rural communities grow and prosper. […]

Vilsack, a former mayor of Mount Pleasant, also said rural communities continue to lose population and “find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the ever-changing national and global economy.”

He pledged to try to resolve the long-standing civil rights claims against the department.

“If I’m confirmed, the message will be clear: discrimination in any form will not be tolerated,” Vilsack said.

After reading that Register article, La Vida Locavore’s Jill Richardson commented,

I want to see our subsidy structure change to reward farmers for sustainability instead of yield. I want the government to ease the financial risk on any farmer transitioning to organic because it appears to me that being an organic farmer isn’t so bad on your bank account, but transitioning alone might break several farmers financially. I want to outlaw CAFOs altogether. But will Vilsack do this? Let me just say this: I am so confident he won’t that I promise now to entirely shave my head if he DOES do each of these 3 things.

I think we can all agree that Jill is not going to look like Sinead O’Connor anytime soon. I totally agree with her first two suggestions. As for CAFOs, it’s not realistic to expect them to be banned, but I believe they would be greatly reduced in number and size (over time) if government policy made them pay for the harm they cause.

On a more encouraging note, I read this at the U.S. Food Policy blog:

Some highlights included Vilsack’s encouragement of locally grown fruits and vegetables and pronouncement that they should be grown not just in rural areas, but everywhere. He announced that he met with Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle last week in order to demonstrate the importance of working together for nutrition. “It’s going to be important for us to promote fresh fruits and vegetables as part of our children’s diets…that means supporting those who supply those products” and making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown products, Vilsack said.

Maybe Vilsack and Daschle will take some of Angie Tagtow’s excellent advice on how their agencies can work together to improve human health. I would also encourage them to read this recent piece by Steph Larsen: “For healthy food and soil, we need affordable health care for farmers.”

I am curious about what Vilsack means by “supporting those who supply” locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables. One problem with our current agricultural policy is that commodity farmers lose all federal subsidies if they put more than two acres into growing fruits or vegetables. Apparently that was the price needed to get California’s Congressional delegation to vote for various farm bills over the years. Even though almost no subsidies go directly to California farmers, this penalty limits the competition California growers might otherwise face from Midwestern farmers.

So, very little of the produce consumed by Iowans is grown in Iowa, and our grocery stores are full of produce trucked in from thousands of miles away. Most of the crops Iowa farmers grow are inedible for humans without processing.

A few years back the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University published a report on “Food, Fuel and Freeways.” It showed how far food travels to Iowans and how much Iowans could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions if we increased the proportion of locally-grown food in our diets to even 10 percent of what we eat.

Getting back to the Vilsack hearing, members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee made some notable comments yesterday. who questioned Vilsack made some notable comments on Wednesday. Iowa’s own Tom Harkin, who chairs the committee, gave Vilsack a warm welcome:

“I just couldn’t be more proud to see you sitting there. I don’t think President-elect [Barack] Obama could have picked a better person for this position,” Harkin said.

Harkin also discussed federal child nutrition programs:

Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin , D-Iowa, said reauthorization of a law (PL 108-265) governing school lunches and other child nutrition programs “is really the only thing that we have to do this year.” […]

During the hearing, Harkin said he will propose that the Department of Agriculture use Institute of Medicine guidelines to set standards for junk food sold in schools. Current USDA school food standards exempt most snack foods, because they aren’t a part of subsidized lunches.

During the last renewal of the child nutrition act, then-Gov. Vilsack wrote a letter to lawmakers and the Bush administration expressing concern about childhood obesity and the problem of vending machine snacks that compete with school meals.

At the time, Vilsack backed limits on the kinds of snacks and beverages students can buy outside the lunch line. Nutrition advocates want junk food kicked out of schools, but many schools use the cash from sales to cover the rising costs of meal services.

(Side note: the state of Iowa is now considering banning the sale of junk food in public schools.)

Meanwhile, Iowa’s Republican Senator Chuck Grassley urged Vilsack to act quickly on several other fronts, including rule-making that would protect smaller volume livestock producers. Also, Grassley and Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota wrote an open letter to Vilsack asking him to close a loophole affecting commodity program payment limits. Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, explains that “This particular loophole is the single most important one allowing mega farming operations to collect payments in multiples of what otherwise appears to be the statutory dollar limit.”

According to Hoefner,

Another former chairman, Pat Leahy (D-VT), weighed in with a comment that the Department is not keeping up with the rapid growth of organic and then with a question asking whether it wasn’t time for the Department to get on with the business of actually actively promoting organic.  Vilsack said we need to “celebrate and support” organic and USDA should view it as one very legitimate option in a menu of options for improving farm incomes.  Then, in response to an extended monologue from Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) deriding organic as marginal, Vilsack held his ground, but diffused the implied antagonism, saying the Department needs to support the full diversity of American agriculture.

The Ethicurean blog published an excerpt of Roberts’ insult to “small family farmers”:

That small family farmer is about 5’2″ … and he’s a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman’s Quarterly – he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab – and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he’s very happy to have that.

How disappointing that an imbecile like this could easily get re-elected in Kansas. Roberts’ caricature does not resemble any of the sustainable farmers I know. They work just as hard as Roberts’ idealized “production agriculture farmer” but don’t receive any federal subsidies, despite growing high-quality food and being good stewards of the land.

If you haven’t already done so, please go to the Food Democracy Now site and sign their new petition recommending 12 good candidates for undersecretary positions at the USDA. These will be important appointments, since Vilsack won’t single-handedly be setting the USDA’s policy direction.

The Center for Rural Affairs has also launched a petition worth signing, which urges Vilsack to implement a number of programs that would benefit farmers and rural economies.

Continue Reading...
View More...