Iowans lose out to industrial ag in 2020 legislative session

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

While coronovirus disrupted the Iowa legislative session this year, it failed to hinder business as usual.

Once again, legislators across the state preferred to serve Big Ag instead of their constituents. It’s hardly a surprise given the hundreds of thousands of dollars that flow into the coffers of our elected officials from Farm Bureau, Bayer-Monsanto and fat cats of the factory farm industry, including the Hansen and Rastetter families. While the needs of everyday Iowans were ignored for yet another year, industrial agribusiness cemented its rule over our state.

Perhaps the most offensive legislation was Senate File 2338, the corporate immunity bill, which protects multi-billion dollar corporations like Tyson from being held accountable for the illness or death of thousands of employees due to COVID-19. From Columbus Junction to Storm Lake, communities were ravaged by COVID-19 as it spread through slaughterhouses that failed to supply adequate personal protective equipment or social distancing measures. While slaughterhouse workers suffered, Iowa’s legislators circled the wagons around big business. Rather than protecting innocent Iowans, some legislators were dedicated to ensuring that corporate giants would not be punished for greedily putting profits before the health and safety of their workforce.

Of course this is hardly the only atrocious instance of Big Ag using the pandemic to further its objectives. Yet another ag-gag bill, Senate File 2413, was passed this year under the guise of coronavirus relief. The legislation was introduced and signed into law before most Iowans were made aware of its existence. Iowa’s taxpayers have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending unconstitutional ag-gag laws in the court system. Raiding the piggy banks of everyday Iowans to clean up the messes of a filthy rich industry is a treasured pastime of Big Ag’s, so Iowans should once again expect to be footing the legal bills for defending this latest effort to block undercover investigations of livestock facilities. (Editor’s note: this Bleeding Heartland post analyzed the legal issues surrounding Senate File 2413.)

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Governor Kim Reynolds were also complicit in rolling back regulations for the factory farm industry, again under the guise of pandemic response. As COVID-19 spread through slaughterhouses and backed up the supply chain, the DNR released new protocols allowing factory farms to confine more livestock than the buildings were intended to house. At the same time, DNR inspections of facilities were halted, allowing an industry that was already loosely regulated to have complete free rein to continue polluting our water, air and soil.

It’s not all bad news, however. In January, Democratic State Representative Sharon Steckman and State Senator Claire Celsi introduced legislation calling for a moratorium on factory farms, with record support. When the first factory farm moratorium bill was introduced in 2018, ten legislators from both chambers signed on in support. This year, 31 legislators either co-sponsored the bill or indicated their support for it.

With a real chance of the House flipping to Democratic control this November, and with the uptick in public education around Iowa’s food and farm system as a result of supply chain failures during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, 2021 will be a promising year for Iowans interested in seeing the factory farm industry curtailed.

We also witnessed Reynolds fail to sell members of both parties on a terrible bill, the Invest in Iowa Act, which would have changed the funding formula for Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Trust (IWILL). Voters ratified IWILL as a state constitutional amendment in 2010; under its terms, part of the next sales tax increase will go toward supporting improving Iowa’s water quality and other conservation efforts. However, even as industrial agriculture further devastated our natural resources and environment, lawmakers never raised the sales tax. With the Invest in Iowa Act, Reynolds proposed decreasing the funding allotted for conservation efforts in order to provide tax cuts for the wealthy. Despite a series of town halls attempting to build favor for the legislation among voters across Iowa, the support never came and the bill was quietly dropped in the wake of the pandemic.

Overall, we can chalk 2020 up as yet another legislative session where our elected officials chose to work for Big Ag instead of serving the people of Iowa. While the capitol building is meant to be The People’s House, it’s clear we’re merely tolerated guests in Big Ag’s kingdom. We have a chance this November to take back our state from the clutches of multi-billion dollar agribusinesses. For the sake of Iowa’s future, I hope we succeed.

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  • The Invest in Iowa Act...

    …raised a question, for many Iowa conservationists, of whether half a loaf would be better than none. Many dedicated Iowa conservationists worked to get the bill passed, while others opposed it. Descriptions and explanations of what the bill would do varied accordingly.

    I am grateful that there was very little finger-pointing and name-calling within the Iowa conservation regard to disagreement over this bill. I hope that amicability will continue into the future.

    At this point, what would really help Iowa conservation would be flipping the Iowa House this fall, so that the Iowa Farm Bureau would not be so entirely in charge of Iowa government. I referred to “the Iowa Farm Bureau” instead of “the Iowa Republican Party” because at this point, the two are the same.