A Moratorium is an Appropriate Solution to Iowa’s Pollution Crisis
By Emma Schmit and Adam Mason
A recent post on this blog argued that a moratorium is not the appropriate solution to Iowa’s factory farm crisis and that the moratorium legislation recently introduced in Iowa’s House of Representatives would neither stop the ongoing corporate takeover of agriculture nor the flow of pollution from factory farms. That conclusion results from an overly narrow view of the factory farm problem now facing Iowa–as well a lack of vision about what it will take to solve this problem.
First, we want to discuss Iowa’s water pollution issues. Nitrogen, which converts to nitrate when in water, threatens both human and aquatic life. Nitrates are a leading cause of water pollution in Iowa, and they can be attributed to two sources:
1) The application of billions of gallons of manure from factory farmed animals on fields as a disposal method and then running off into streams and rivers1
2) The use of nitrogen fertilizer on crops like corn and soybeans, many of which are destined to feed the 23.6 million,2 hogs confined on Iowa’s factory farms.3 Either way, you cut it, Iowa’s massive number of factory farms are a driving force behind the drinking water crisis facing our state. Between 1996 and 2015, Iowa had over 800 documented manure spills, resulting in fish kills and contributing to over 700 impaired waterways.4
Next, let’s look at the suggestion that a better approach would be to institute a cap on both the number of animals and the number of animal-units one entity can own in order to give “small” farmers a chance to compete. This argument ignores several key realities of the hog industry in Iowa, as well as the bill that would establish a moratorium on factory farms.
One reality is that it is quite unlikely independent small farms would be able to compete in the hog market that currently exists in Iowa. Just four companies slaughter over 60 percent of the hogs in the U.S. and there are signs that in Iowa the biggest players control even more of the market5. This matters more than you might think. Turning hogs into high volume, low-cost commodities ensures that small independent farmers will be hard pressed to find a company to buy their hogs, let alone offer them a fair price. Iowa offers stark evidence of this phenomenon — as the market share by the biggest meat companies rose through the years, the number of farms raising hogs went down dramatically, even as the number of total hogs raised skyrocketed. Between 1982 and 2007, the number of hogs in Iowa increased 10-fold; yet over the same period, the number of farms raising hogs in Iowa fell by more than 80 percent, and the economic value of the state’s hog production actually declined.6
Another reality is that Iowa, and the whole country, is currently flooded with pork that no one is buying. The trade war has closed many of the export markets meat companies rely on, and as a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently spending millions of dollars to buy up excess supply. Not exactly an attractive market for new small farmers.
We also need to be clear about one more thing: the bill in question would create a moratorium on factory farms that confine 750 animals on one site. People looking to produce pastured animals for specialty markets would still be able to start new operations, even after this bill is passed. In fact, that’s what we want to see.
The corporate control of our food system is currently a disaster for small independent farmers. The moratorium would help level the playing field and give us time to work on critical fixes while preventing the meat industry’s stranglehold over the system from getting worse. We’re also working at the federal level to stop more mega-mergers that make big agribusinesses even bigger, to demand fair practices for farmers when they deal with meatpackers and to restore country of origin labeling to help U.S. farmers market their products. We need to continue to build power to win those fights too. But we also need a pause in the constant expansion of this industry in Iowa — a pause that a moratorium would create.
People on the front lines of this crisis, including owners of independent farmers, rural business owners, and those living near factory farms, support a moratorium. People in dozens of Iowa’s counties have lobbied their county supervisors in favor of stronger local control or a moratorium; supervisors in nearly a quarter of Iowa’s counties have adopted resolutions to that end. Thousands of people have contacted their legislators in favor of the moratorium legislation; nearly 200 turned out for a lobby day and rally last year in Des Moines. Five thousand have signed a petition demanding a moratorium. The list of elected officials supporting moratorium legislation continues to grow, with nearly 20 legislators supporting the House bill and five committed to co-sponsoring the Senate bill. This visionary approach, driven by people living on the frontlines of the factory farm fight, will allow us to begin to reclaim our rural communities, recreate an agricultural system that works for farmers and eaters, and reduce corporate control of our food system. Join us as we work toward a moratorium on new and expanded factory farms.
Emma Schmit is an organizer with Food & Water Watch. She lives in rural Calhoun County, home to 180 factory farms.
Adam Mason is the state policy organizing director at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. He grew up on a small family farm in northwest Iowa.
1 Mitchell, Russell. “Supervisors continue effort to strengthen livestock siting formula.” Dickinson County News. August 8, 2017.
2 Associated Press. (2018, September 28). Iowa pig population reaches record 23.6 million. Retrieved from https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/agriculture/2018/09/27/iowa-pig-population-23-6-million-usda-how-many-pigs-iowa-united-states/1451081002/
3 Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Basic AFO Data (With Animal Units) (This report includes only Active Operations).” Available at https://programs.iowadnr.gov/animalfeedingoperations/Reports.aspx. Accessed August 2018.
4 Factory Farm Spills in 3 Weeks. (2015, October 15). Retrieved from http://iowacci.org/in-the-news/5-factory-farm-spills-in-3-weeks/
5 Hendrickson, Mary and Bill Heffernan. Department of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri-Columbia. “Concentration of Agricultural Markets.” April 2007.
6 USDA. National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). 1982 Census of Agriculture. Geographic Area Series — Iowa. AC82-A-15. May 1984 at Table 20 at 16; 2012 Census of Agriculture. State Data at Table 12 at 361.