Iowa deserves to be more than just a feedlot between two rivers

Emma Schmit is an Iowa organizer for Food & Water Watch. -promoted by Laura Belin

In December, U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced a historic new vision for agriculture and food in the United States. The Farm System Reform Act would overhaul our unsustainable food and agriculture model and strengthen the Packers & Stockyards Act to give independent family farmers a fighting chance against monopolistic, corporate integrators. It restores mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, so consumers know where their food is coming from.

What makes it truly revolutionary, though, is that it calls for an end to factory farming. The Farm System Reform Act is the first ever national factory farm ban legislation.

To achieve this sweeping overhaul of our food system, Booker’s bill provides a $100 billion voluntary buyout program for contract farmers who want to transition away from factory farming. Through an immediate moratorium on the construction of new or expanding large factory farms, the bill initiates a phaseout of existing large factory farms by 2040.

The Farm System Reform Act also contains mechanisms to hold meat companies accountable for the harm caused by factory farms. Through the creation of new support programs, factory farms can transition to alternative agriculture production such as pasture-based livestock, specialty crop cultivation, or organic commodity production. This legislation is a huge first step in restructuring our food and agriculture system so that it works for our farmers, our communities, and our environment rather than a handful of multi-billion dollar corporations.

Senator Booker isn’t the only one challenging the factory farm industry. Over the past year, we have seen seven presidential candidates come out in support of a factory farm moratorium. It’s not hard to imagine why when they have spent so many hours traveling across Iowa, the land of 10,000 factory farms.

The harmful impacts of the industry are visible in every corner of the state. Factory farms have polluted our water resulting in more than 760 impaired waterways throughout the state. Factory farms have increased corporate control of our ag sector, pigeonholing independent family farmers and local meat processors and running them out of business. Factory farms have furthered the climate crisis, relying heavily on fossil fuels and generating vast quantities of greenhouse gases. The factory farm industry creates disastrous ramifications for our planet as a whole, but our local communities bear the brunt of this harmful industry.

In Iowa, ground zero of the factory farm crisis, state legislators have also taken notice. According to recent polling by John Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future, 63 percent of Iowans support a moratorium on factory farms. Democratic State Representative Sharon Steckman and State Senator Claire Celsi have responded to constituents’ concerns by once again introducing legislation calling for a moratorium on new and expanding factory farms until the impacts of the industry have been fully assessed. Both Steckman and Celsi introduced similar bills during the 2019 session.

Unfortunately, Republican State Representative Dean Fisher, who chairs the Iowa House Environmental Protection Committee, intentionally blocked the bill from being heard last year. Considering Fisher has taken nearly $10,000 from donors in the agriculture sector, and the Iowa Farm Bureau’s PAC is his third largest donor, his refusal to assign the moratorium bill to a subcommittee and allow the democratic process to work is not at all surprising.

State Senator Dan Zumbach, chair of the Iowa Senate Agriculture Committee, did assign Celsi’s moratorium bill to a subcommittee. However, he waited until the absolute last minute and stacked the committee against the bill, ensuring the legislation would not move past the first legislative funnel.

Since the end of the 2019 legislative session, support for a factory farm moratorium has steadily increased. Factory farms operate largely unregulated without regard for surrounding communities. Seaboard Triumph, ranked 2nd on the 2019 Pork Powerhouse list of largest producers, was accused of human trafficking and labor abuse at their Sioux City plant. Iowans saw 81 beach advisories related to E. Coli and toxic blue-green algae from factory farm pollution over the summer. Nearly 40 manure spills across the state befouled our soil and water.

Iowa’s number of polluted waterways continues to rise, with 767 rivers, lakes, and streams considered impaired. Over 10,000 private wells were also found to be contaminated with bacteria and high levels of nitrogen as a result of intensive industrial agriculture practices throughout the state.

Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which is intended to reduce Iowa’s contribution of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, is also failing. It will take hundreds to thousands of years to clean up Iowa’s water at the rate of progress achieved under the current voluntary approach.

As corporate-owned factory farms continue to rapidly pollute and damage our state, people are no longer content to stay silent. Unprecedented numbers of people are rising up to demand that our elected officials support a moratorium on new and expanded factory farms to protect our water, our communities, and Iowa’s independent family-scale farms.

Our state deserves to be more than just a feedlot between two rivers. Our communities deserve clean water. Our farmers deserve to work without unjust contracts and monopolized markets. On Thursday, January 23, Iowans from across the state will be gathering for a Stop Factory Farms Lobby Day at the state capitol in Des Moines. We will spend the day urging our elected officials to support a statewide moratorium on factory farms. All are welcome to join us in the fight for a better future.

Photos from last year’s lobby day provided by the author and published with permission:

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  • Further key points

    It’s great to see the action continuing. I hope at the Stop Factory Farms Lobby Day emphasis will be put on how CAFOs are radically anti-farmer and anti-farm economy. First crop farmers prices have been chronically below full costs, so farmers are the main subsidizers of CAFOs, Second, most Iowa farms have lost all value added livestock and poultry as these cheap-price subsidies from farmers have increased over the past 6-7 decades. Third, in losing livestock, farms lose grass and hay ground, (i.e. on hills, near streams,) plus nurse crops like the feed grains oats and barley. Oats was once the 3rd biggest commodity crop, but now we import many times more oats than we export. We’re farming out sustainability. Fourth, our small towns and the over all infrastructure for diversity and sustainability continue to be destroyed.

  • A circle that is not virtuous

    The vision of the Iowa CAFO industry is a vision of more and more people all over the globe eating more and more meat per person, preferably meat imported from Iowa. That’s a recipe for bad human health, accelerated climate change, increased water pollution, more soil erosion, and continued animal suffering. Those carefully-curated-and-posed photos of CAFOs that are posted on social media never seem to include dumpsters overflowing with dead baby pigs, with more dead pigs piled around the dumpster, like the scene a horrified acquaintance saw in north central Iowa a few months ago. 

    And it’s interesting to see, in ag media, the furious hysteria (that really is not too strong a term for it) over the growing public interest in what the CAFO industry angrily calls “fake meat.”  For an industry that claims to care so much about protein, they sure don’t like some of the plant-based kinds.