Unintended Consequences: Current Moratorium Legislation Misses the Mark
By: Brian Josephson
Recently, a bill (HF203) to enact a moratorium on new or expanded hog confinement operations in Iowa was introduced by several Democratic lawmakers in the Iowa House. The proponents of this bill undoubtedly have good intentions. They rightfully claim that the level of pollution in Iowa’s air and waterways is far too high and that agriculture has an out-sized roll in creating that pollution. Their solution, however, doesn’t address the main cause of nitrate pollution and threatens to cement Big Ag’s hold on the market forever.
The bill itself is fairly straightforward: it directs the DNR to decline to approve any applications for new construction or expansion of any hog confinement operations larger than 1000 animal units. An animal unit is 1,000 lbs of any particular livestock animal. In the case of market hogs, the standard measurement used by the DNR is 1 hog = 0.4 animal units. Under the bill, any operation with 750 or more feeder pigs would be prevented from expanding, and any proposed new operation of that size would also be subject to the moratorium.
The bill is attractive to many on the left who are opposed to the ongoing corporate takeover of agriculture and who want to see pollution reduced in our state. Unfortunately, this legislation would do little to address either issue.
The last big hope for addressing water quality in Iowa was a lawsuit brought by the Des Moines Water Works against three counties in northwest Iowa alleging that the high level of nitrates released into the Raccoon River was the result of drainage tiles intended to remove water from the soil to allow crop production. The lawsuit was ultimately thrown out, but the language in the complaint gives us insight into what measures will have the largest effect in cleaning Iowa’s impaired waterways.
In plain terms, the suit acknowledged that animal waste applied to fields is a contributing factor, but noted that the bulk of the pollution is caused by drainage tiles which artificially lower the water table, reduce topsoil saturation, and allow bacteria which excrete these pollutants to decompose plant material during warmer temperatures.
From the lawsuit:
“Rapid mineralization in the unsaturated zone in the absence of perennial vegetation to consume it provides a large source of nitrate and continuous drainage allows little opportunity for natural attenuation or de-nitrification”
It’s clear then, that the major cause of nitrate and phosphorous pollution is the result of fields being left fallow in early spring before planting and late fall after harvest. Without plants to take up the minerals during those times, heavy rains wash them out through the tiles into rivers and streams, flowing directly under, and bypassing any grass buffers that may be in place. Cover crops and wetlands would do the most good to alleviate this problem.
But maybe that doesn’t matter to you. Maybe, you support an all-avenues approach to pollution reduction that includes a moratorium. In that case, I want to take a minute to talk about the dangers of painting with a broad brush and the law of unintended consequences.
One of the additional benefits of this legislation, from a progressive point of view, is that it essentially knee-caps companies like Iowa Select and prevents them from expanding at all during the moratorium. Unfortunately, it prevents anyone from expanding or even entering the market in any meaningful way. Simply put, the 750 head cap is far, far too low. in 2017, the average profit per head of hogs was $4. Assuming that rate (the highest in recent years due to tariffs) and that a feeder-to-finish operation can run three groups of market hogs through a building every year, a person with a 750 head operation can expect to make around $9,000 annual profit; five-thousand dollars less than a full-time minimum wage worker.
What this means in practice is that Iowa Select and other large companies can continue to reap the profits from their over-sized herds while any new competition is effectively prevented from entering the market because they can’t support themselves on a herd that small. Why would Democrats, who purport to be the defender of the small farmer, support legislation that prevents small hog farmers from turning a meaningful profit? How do they expect to look the small farmer in the eye while they hand corporate agriculture an oligopoly? What happens when the moratorium is lifted and corporate hog farms have cash on hand from artificially lowered supply to expand and the small farmer doesn’t because he was unable to start-up or expand during that time?
Yes, it’s true that the small farmer is a dying breed, but there’s no reason we should be supporting policies that accelerate it, especially if the benefits of those policies are arguable at best. It would be far better to explore cover crops and wetlands while instituting a cap on both the number of head and the number of animal-units one entity can own. This approach would stop large farms from expanding and still allow small farmers the chance to enter the market. If instituted correctly, it could maybe even reverse the consolidation in the hog industry in the long-term.
Too often, we rally around policies that sound good on paper but will be a nightmare in practice. Too often we don’t involve stakeholders in the legislating process when doing so could help us avoid negative consequences that we couldn’t see because we aren’t involved in that industry and for too long Democrats have been wondering why rural areas don’t vote blue while actively pursuing policies that will negatively impact those same areas because we don’t see the full picture. Let’s not make this another one of those times.