By Sandra Alper and Miriam Kashia
Two thousand four hundred ninety-nine. That is the magic maximum number of hogs allowed to construct a new confined animal feeding operation (CAFO, or factory farm) in Iowa without notifying local or county officials or adhering to state government regulations. Only a cursory review and approval by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and filing a plan for manure management with the county auditor, are required. There are no minimum requirements for acreage or distance from residences, schools, parks and sources of water unless the CAFO contains 2,500 hogs or more.
Currently, there are approximately 11,500 CAFOs that have been approved by DNR, and another 5,000 operations never approved but detected by DNR satellite photos, according to a September 15, 2017 Des Moines Register article. Representatives of the state, Farm Bureau and meat packing corporations estimate that Iowa should be able to handle 45,700 CAFOs. CAFOs produce lots of cheap pork (one-third of which we export) and the vast majority of the chickens and eggs consumed in Iowa. CAFOs also provide jobs in many economically distressed areas of the state. So what is the problem?
First, we have a huge manure problem. CAFO manure is stored in concrete lagoons under the hog sheds that can and have leaked raw manure into our water supply. Farmers also spray liquified manure onto fields. Runoff and farmland tile drainage systems pollute our water supply and contribute to Iowa’s current ranking as the state with the third most contaminated water.
Particulate matter from all this manure pollutes our air and soil. Nationally, CAFOs produce three times the amount of feces produced by the entire human population of the United States according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hog manure releases methane, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, phosphorous, heavy salts and minerals into our atmosphere, contributing significantly to global warming. And this concentrated quantity of manure stinks! Just ask those who live close to a CAFO or drive around the countryside yourself on a warm, breezy day.
Second, CAFOs are making us sick. Hogs living in overcrowded sheds and standing on metal grates directly over the manure pits are fed antibiotics to prevent disease and promote growth. We ingest these antibiotics when we eat pork. Research from the University of Iowa and other universities has linked antibiotic resistant diseases such as the deadly MERSA virus to CAFOS. In addition, headaches, nausea, respiratory illnesses and developmental delays in infants and children have been reported for those living close to CAFOs. (Jefferson County Farmers and Neighbors, Inc. has several excellent reports on the research documenting the harmful effects of CAFO manure on children’s health and the environment.)
Third, consumers have little to gain economically from CAFOs. Farm record data indicate that the costs of industrial factory hog farms are only slightly lower than costs of average commercial producers. And the lion’s share of profits from the sale of pork go to the corporate owners, not to the individual farmers. Corporations are locating CAFOs pretty much wherever they want and most of that is in rural areas where they meet less resistance, regardless of the economic or social consequences for citizens. Small rural communities surrounded by factory hog farms and manure odors are hardly attractive to new businesses and young productive people who might be considering moving into the state.
Fourth, CAFOs are cruel and inhumane to both workers and pigs. The meat-packing industry employs many poor and immigrant workers who may not have legal papers. These workers are exposed to harmful fumes and chemicals from all the manure and often work dangerous jobs with unpaid overtime and no benefits in the packing plants. The threat of losing their income and deportation always looms, so they cannot complain. When ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) does show up, the corporate owners typically never pay a penalty or change their exploitative practices. Only the workers suffer.
Pigs are forced to live out their lives in overcrowded, stressful pens and breathe ammonia fumes. CAFOs that use farrowing crates are particularly cruel to the sows who spend most of their lives in cages so small they cannot walk or turn around. The industry has even found an ingenious way to deliver electrical shock to the sow who has the misfortune of lying on her piglets. When it’s time for the pigs to go to market, their torture continues. They are herded into crowded semis using electrical prods, often applied to the rectum, if they don’t move fast enough. Transported without food or water, they must suffer under diesel fumes, ammonia and extreme heat in the summer and are subjected to freezing temperatures in the trucks in winter. There are documented cases of hogs whose skin has frozen to the metal truck trailer side.
After herding into the packing plant, again with the aid of the electrical prods, the animals are supposed to be put out of their misery with stun guns applied to the brain. But, evidence from outside observers and employees reported by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) indicate that the stun guns may misfire due to equipment failure or lack of employee training. The result is that some pigs are dunked in the scalding tank while still alive! These plants operate 24 hours per day, seven days a week and may kill 1,000 hogs per hour.
So, what can we do? Both rural and urban Iowans must become active in shaping the destiny of our communities and state. Factory farming is not just a problem for poor, rural communities. The current Iowa state legislature has killed our precious Iowa value of local control. Like Big Tobacco, Big Oil and Big Pharma, Big Ag has the money and the power to influence the majority of our state legislators and government officials. They become complicit as their hefty campaign chests assure reelection. We cannot allow self-interest economics and corporate greed to continue to destroy our land, water, air and rural communities.
In his book, The Essentials of Economic Sustainability, John Ikerd observed that just as the South gave birth to the civil rights movement, it can be the predominantly rural states that save our land, air and water. So we must be active. You may choose to not eat pork. If you enjoy meat, ask your grocer or restaurant where their meat comes from. Although roughly 90 percent of pork sold in grocery stores and restaurants comes from CAFOs, there are many remaining farms that produce quality meat under healthy, humane conditions. Ask before you buy.
Call, email or write your legislators and government officials. Sign petitions. Talk to your neighbors, friends and family. Ask your county board of supervisors how they intend to promote sustainable and responsible farming methods. Ask candidates who are running for office their position on these issues. And VOTE! Vote in every local, county, state and national election for which you are registered. The point is, DO WHATEVER YOU CAN, BUT JUST DO SOMETHING!! And do it now.
The CAFOs are coming to Johnson County.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 246.