Comments at a CAFO hearing

Francis Thicke is a soil scientist and organic dairy farmer. He has served as the National Program Leader for Soil Science for the USDA-Extension Service and was the 2010 Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture. -promoted by desmoinesdem

The room was packed for an August 28 hearing on a new proposed confined-animal feeding operation (CAFO) in Jefferson County. Lots of people expressed their frustration that Iowa’s laws make it nearly impossible to stop a CAFO that will compromise the quality of life for the neighbors.

Here are my comments:

There are some things we hold sacred in this country. They are expressed in the Declaration of Independence as the inalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. The pursuit of happiness certainly should include the right to not have our health and quality of life destroyed by another person’s business model.

Make no mistake about it: many Iowa citizens have had their health and quality of life severely compromised when CAFOs moved into their neighborhoods. Published studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals have documented the detrimental health effects of living near CAFOs.

When I served a four-year term on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission I heard many first-hand accounts of how people’s lives were turned upside down when a CAFOs moved into their neighborhood. Some had to seal their houses airtight. Some had to live in their basements. Quite a number have had to abandon their homes completely and move elsewhere. These are serious infringements on people’s rights as citizens. How can we allow this to happen in Iowa?

The Iowa legislature has failed its rural citizens by caving in to the demands of lobbyists from the Farm Bureau and the pork industry and taking away local control over the siting of CAFOs. The Master Matrix is a sham. Only 50 percent of the Master Matrix points are required to pass, and nearly every CAFO takes the same easy points. When I was in school, 50 percent was a failing grade, an F.

What are some of the easy points? The Master Matrix gives 30 points for the liquid manure storage structure having a “cover” and 30 points for the manure storage structure being “formed.” That is the way CAFOs are built, with a concrete basement for the manure (formed) and with the building on top (the cover). That gives 60 points just for being a CAFO.

When have we ever seen a CAFO include a biofilter to filter out the noxious gases? The Master Matrix allows 10 points for a biofilter. Research shows that a biofilter will reduce toxic gases and odors by 80 to 90 percent. A windbreak to contain toxic gases and odors is worth 20 points? We rarely see CAFO biofilters and windbreaks in a Master Matrix scoring because the Master Matrix offers too many other easy points.

CAFO owners don’t want to earn points for things that protect their neighbors because those things cost money, and CAFO owners are in it to make money, not to protect their neighbors. CAFO owners hire consultants—like the one that wrote the Master Matrix for this CAFO and the Huber CAFO—to write their Master Matrix applications because those consultants know how to game the system and pass the Master Matrix with all the easy points.

One of the Jefferson County Supervisors recently said in a letter to the editor that if the supervisors take away points that the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] disagrees with, the DNR will take away the county’s ability to use the Master Matrix. That is false. That has never happened. If the DNR disagrees with a county scoring and reinstates Master Matrix points that county supervisors have denied, the county can appeal those points with the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission. It happened a number of times when I was on the EPC.

Increasingly, county boards across Iowa are recognizing that the Master Matrix is a sham, and some counties are becoming stricter in their scoring of Master Matrix points. Some county boards have even refused to pass a Master Matrix application that scores enough points, because they are interested in protecting the rights of their citizens over the profits of CAFO owners. I urge the Jefferson County Supervisors to also take a stronger stand. County supervisors are in a position to signal to the Iowa legislature that this sham has gone on long enough, and that major changes are needed.

Eventually, after enough people have been harmed, after enough people have had their rights trampled over, Iowa citizens will rise up to end this CAFO charade. In the meantime, we have to do what we can to protect ourselves. County boards of supervisors can either lead the charge or wither in fear of offending CAFO owners and the agricultural status quo.

Top image: By United States Geological Survey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author(s)

Francis Thicke

  • Socialism for the corporations

    Smithfield Foods lost a lawsuit against foul smells at one of its CAFO’s in North Carolina about a month ago. Interesting few people know that Smithfield is owned by a Chinese corporation where they export 30% of their total production back to China. We have to live with the consequences of air and water pollution while they profit from lax government policies. It is actually cheaper for them to ship pork back to China (8,000 miles) than raise it there. They say an average CAFO hog facility produces the equivalent sewage as a city of 15,000 people. Some say there are more pigs than people here in Iowa.

    Ah yes, socialize the risks and costs, privatize the profits. Thanks to the excellent lobbying of Big Ag.

  • Why, why, why...

    …have Iowans put up for so long with the massive domination of the Iowa political system by unsustainable industrial agriculture? Having grown up in another state, I may never fully understand it.

    Just visiting the Iowa State Fair every year is becoming more disturbing as the Big Ag propaganda becomes more pervasive and blatant. The newest example is the Farm to Fair Dinner, which is basically major-commodity-group representatives making their pitch to a few hundred fairgoers who agree to have a free meal and become a captive audience.

    I hope the wise and erudite Francis Thicke is right and that Iowa citizens will rise up one day and force change. The current system has made Iowa, as one ISU soil expert has pointed out, the world’s largest shallowest strip mine. I may not live to see the rising up. But hope springs eternal.