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The ‘War on Meat’ isn’t real, but small Iowa farmers face an uphill battle against Big Ag


Photo illustration by Jordan Sellergren and Jason Smith

By Zoe Pharo and Paul Brennan

For most Americans, the 2021 War on Meat was a blink-and-you-miss-it moment in conservative culture-war politics, the kind typically sparked by a red Starbucks cup or the marketing of a slightly more gender-neutral Barbie doll or Mr. Potato Head.

By the time Fox News announced on April 23 that a War on Meat was on — the Biden administration, Fox anchors warned, was planning to limit Americans’ red meat intake to four pounds a year, a bogus claim they lifted from a British tabloid — Iowans were already veterans.

But Iowa’s war had nothing to do with the phony meat quota or even President Biden. It sprung from a cloud of feigned outrage over Jared Polis, the Democratic governor of Colorado, daring to declare March 20, 2021 “MeatOut Day.”

The nonbinding resolution was the sort that designates a statewide Monarch Butterfly Week or Enjoy Ice Cream Month. But MeatOut Day, an effort to promote the benefits of a plant-based diet, outraged the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and state Republicans. They declared March 20 “Meat Producers Appreciation Day” instead.

That’s how things might have stayed — except Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts decided to weigh in. The GOP governor proclaimed March 20 to be “Meat on the Menu Day” in Nebraska.

Gov. Kim Reynolds was a little slower to launch a counteroffensive against the Colorado MeatOut menace, but she went bigger than Ricketts. On March 19, Reynolds issued her own proclamation, declaring April to be “Meat on the Table Month” and calling upon Iowans to purchase pork and beef products to show support for farmers.

Reynolds also saw a chance to raise some campaign cash, and she fired off a fundraising email that warned, “Democrats and liberal special interest groups are trying to cancel our meat industry.”

The solution? Send the governor’s reelection campaign some money.

Fox’s war didn’t go so well for the home team. The meat-quota story was so clearly ridiculous, the network quietly retracted it after a few days. It did have an afterlife, though: Conservatives posed as dinner table warriors on social media, posting photos of heaping plates of beef and pork.

As most Republicans moved on to other culture wars, with critical race theory emerging as a favorite target, Sen. Joni Ernst (who made her childhood experience castrating hogs central to her first campaign) showed up fighting a rear-guard action in the War on Meat.

“The Left’s War on Meat is being waged at the expense of America’s hardworking farmers and producers,” Ernst tweeted on July 10, as she introduced her latest policy proposal. The TASTEE (Telling Agencies to Stop Tweaking what Employees Eat) Act would ensure that “federal agencies can’t ban meat and other agriculture products in our government dining halls.”

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Ernst, who was first sworn in as a senator in 2015, created the TASTEE Act to respond to something that happened in 2012. That year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its short-lived “Meatless Monday” initiative. In an interoffice newsletter about going “greener,” the department encouraged employees to consider forgoing meat one day a week for their own health and that of the climate.

Ernst frequently unveils stunt bills that don’t stand a chance of becoming law, but which seem crafted to get attention from rightwing media. TASTEE, however, landed with a thud. Ernst could only attract one cosponsor, Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican who only joined the Senate in January. Even Sen. Chuck Grassley gave it a pass, maybe because he’d already denounced the USDA Meatless Monday suggestion back in 2012.

“I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday,” Grassley tweeted nine years before Ernst’s TASTEE tweet.

Meat was on the menu at Solon Beef Days, an annual celebration of beef producers held in the Johnson County Town. July 16, 2021. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

Rhetoric in the various Wars on Meat is clownish, but it’s important to note it serves the same function rodeo clowns do. It distracts from real problems.

Consider what the USDA said in its 2012 newsletter that outraged Grassley and (eventually) Ernst.

“The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact,” read the newsletter. “According to the U.N., animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources. It takes 7,000 kg of grain to make 1,000 kg of beef. In addition, beef production requires a lot of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides.”

That’s true, and it’s surprising an adult would respond by saying, “I will eat more meat on Mondays.” Or, rather, it would be if such statements didn’t help politicians court Big Ag donors. The meat fearmongering has also been successful in rallying rural communities around GOP leaders.

Farmers often say they feel neglected or ignored, and as stories in the media about upscale New York restaurants going meat-free and Burger King adding the Impossible Burger to its menu proliferate, and more academic studies document the environmental costs of how meat is produced — all of which can seem like threats to a farmer’s livelihood — it can be comforting to hear politicians say they’ll go to war for you.

Cattle take shelter at Erinn Spevacek’s farm in northeast Iowa City. — Zoe Pharo/Little Village

Johnson County cattle farmer Erinn Spevacek said she applauded Gov. Reynolds for Meat on the Table Month. “She didn’t give us a day or a week,” Spevacek said. “She gave us a month, and I was really proud of that, because I think it speaks volumes.”

For Spevacek, who raises around 250 beef cattle using a cow-calf operation — in which a permanent herd of cows is kept to produce calves for sale — the War on Meat is “all over the place,” especially in grocery stores. For example, she sees it in deceptive food labelling that misleads consumers, such as when brands market their meat products as healthier by labelling them “antibiotic-free” — something the USDA requires of all meat sold in stores.

Spevacek also sees damage being caused by outspoken opposition to concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, when that opposition argument fails to take size into account. Industrial-style CAFOs give a bad name to all farms that utilize indoor facilities, including hers, she said.

“There’s actually a science to the building that we have,” Spevacek said. “It’s going to be dry; it’s going to be warm. It’s better than pulling that calf out of snow and ice, or mud.”

“I know here, locally, people do not like [livestock] buildings,” she continued. “And with that last land use plan, they’re anti-CAFO.”

Pigs in a CAFO (concentrated animal feed operation). — via the United States Geological Survey

She was referring to Johnson County’s 2018 Land Use Plan, which, among other strategic goals, aimed to “discourage concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Johnson County,” and to gain more regulating power over these operations. But those statements are the Johnson County equivalent of Gov. Polis’s MeatOut Day proclamation. The Iowa legislature long ago stripped county and city governments of any authority to regulate CAFOs. It is unimaginable that state legislators will change that in the foreseeable future.

“It’s such an emotional topic,” said Pat Heiden, chair of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, who was raised on a dairy farm in western Iowa. On the one hand, Heiden said, “[CAFOs] are an efficient and cheap way to meet consumer demand for protein and serve as a means for beginning farmers to get into the business.” However, with CAFOs come a “significant manure management problem that threatens our air and water quality.”

But even pasture-raised meat and rotational grazing — in which animals are moved through portions of a pasture while the other sections “rest,” allowing the plants to recover and deepen their root systems — gets the side-eye from some consumers, according to Jamie Bierman of Twisted Oaks Meats. She said she’s encountered pushback while selling her grass-fed beef cuts at the Iowa City Farmers Market.

Jamie Bierman of Twisted Oaks Meats, wearing a shirt that reads “grass fed.” — Zoe Pharo/Little Village

“It seems to be that they feel we are destroying the environment,” Bierman said of some market-goers. “And if I had the time, I would take them all out here and just show them what we’re doing. It would be so wonderful if they could actually see that our grasslands are sequestering more carbon, producing more clean oxygen than trees are.”

Bierman, a fifth-generation farmer in east-central Iowa, grew up in a more conventional mode of farming, but has been transitioning for nearly a decade into a more regenerative model. At first, Twisted Oaks’ move to rotational grazing was primarily economical.

“The impetus was that we had a $30,000 creep feed bill that we couldn’t pay,” she said. Creep feeding is the practice of providing supplemental feed, such as grain, to nursing calves.

Bierman recalls that, in her frustration, she told the feed truck to stop coming, and “everything turned out fine. Everything just lived on grass.” Now, the Biermans rotate their animals across nine pastures, allowing them to graze for a day before moving them to the next spot.

It wasn’t long before Bierman noticed the ecological advantages of this system, as well as the cost-savings.

“We started seeing it immediately: The health of our animals was better, we were happier, the soil was, well, soil. Our plants would actually break down.”

Meat and dairy farming is one of the leading causes of climate change, making up 5 percent of global CO2 emissions, but it may also be part of the solution. Grasslands are great at sequestering carbon, and while traditional agricultural practices (including the mass production of soybeans, popular in meat alternatives) often involve disturbing or destroying grassland ecosystems, managed grazing, as Bierman now practices, can encourage plant growth. The animals’ manure fertilizes the flora, while their hooves till the soil naturally.

As the need to reduce factors contributing to climate change has become more urgent, more research has been done into how carefully managed grazing may be able to sequester more carbon than the other greenhouse gases it produces, greatly reducing the environmental impact of raising beef. But there are no signs that such practices are being implemented at any noticeable scale in the United States — certainly not in Iowa.

Livestock waste, pesticides and other pollutants from industrial farms have caused unprecedented water quality problems in Iowa, and states downriver from it. — Tim McCabe/USDA

Less carbon, smaller feeding bills for farmers, content grass-fed animals, healthier soil, more nutritious meat — managed grazing seems to be an overall win. Why invent a war on meat when you can unite the nation around sustainable farming?

The answer is depressingly simple: Big Ag’s big money.

Farming since the 1970s has prized “efficiency, specialization and industrialization,” according to University of Missouri agriculture professor John Ikerd, a contributor to “Regenerative Farming and the Green New Deal,” a proposal for reforming U.S. agriculture by Data for Progress, a progressive think tank.

Farmers depend on government subsidies for around a third of their income, yet those subsidies incentivize maximum yield on a few cash crops (corn, soybeans), leading to monocultures and unhealthy topsoil more vulnerable to the floods and droughts brought by climate change.

“Our current system has done a bang-up job teaching me how to emit carbon and deplete finite resources to raise food,” according to Iowa farmer Seth Watkins, who contributed to the Data for Progress report on regenerative farming. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for research funding and policy that helps me raise food, put carbon back into our soil, and restore the natural resources that we all depend on.”

CAFOs containing thousands of animals account for the majority of meat raised in the United States. The waste products from that industrial-style farming damage the environment, and the health of CAFO workers, but the massive scale of those operations makes the cost of raising animals much cheaper than doing it the way it is done at smaller, more sustainable and more humane livestock operations.

All aspects of American agriculture are magnified in Iowa, the most ag-intensive state in the country. There are now only 85,000 farms in Iowa, compared to over 200,000 in 1950, yet the state is home to an unfathomable 23.6 million pigs, more than any other state. Cows also outnumber people in the state at 3.7 million.

A sign outside Tyson’s meat packing plant in Waterloo, 501 N Elk Run Rd, on May 10, 2020. — Sophie McClatchey/Little Village

This system isn’t economically sustainable, either. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated unacceptable working conditions in meatpacking plants and exposed the fragility of the food system in Iowa, at a time when farms continue to be consolidated and increase in size. Now, just four meat processing companies dominate the pork, beef and chicken markets in the U.S.: Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, JBS and National Beef.

“The meatpackers have created both a security and an insecurity,” Bierman said. The security is that “a lot of food is provided rather cheaply for the masses. … However, the insecurity is that there are only a few major players in that game.”

The “big four” control such an overwhelming share of the market — they process about 85 percent of meat cut into steaks and roasts and 70 percent of the meat ground into hamburger, according to the North American Meat Institute — it prevents smaller operations from competing.

It also allows the big meat producers to keep reducing the price paid to farmers for their animals. That’s one of the biggest reasons small farmers who raise animals are struggling, even giving up — not nonbinding resolutions in Colorado or nine-year-old suggestions in a USDA newsletter.

And as smaller farmers are squeezed ever tighter, large corporations see their profits rise.
But don’t expect to hear Reynolds denounce the big four as she campaigns for reelection, even as she extols how pro-farmer she is. Corporations crushing farms as they damage the environment isn’t a war she’s interested in fighting.

“What I really want people to understand is that meat that is raised right does require our life, it requires all of our time,” Bierman said. “It requires most of our resources financially and ecologically, so I’m paying between six and 10 times more than your big packers, just to get you this meat.”

Rehberg’s Pork products are on sale every Saturday at the Iowa City Farmers Market. — Zoe Pharo/Little Village

Not all meat is created equal. “Good meat” is more expensive, but supports the local economy, keeping dollars in sustainable farming and rural communities. According to local farmers, the best way to know about the meat you’re getting is to have a personal relationship with the producer.

“All things are a practice, right? So farming is definitely a practice. And that means that you’re always improving or looking to improve,” Bierman said. “But you wouldn’t know if your farmer’s that way if you don’t decide to get to know them.”

For many Americans, nothing quite hits the spot like juicy, savory, real meat. Americans’ average meat intake has increased 40 percent since 1961, and despite the invention of new, tastier and affordable meat alternatives, a study out of the University of Illinois shows Americans have grown steadily more carnivorous in recent years.

But that doesn’t mean many consumers aren’t trying to eat good meat — to strike that balance between cost, convenience, quality and ethical consumption.

“For [your] own peace of mind,” Bierman said, “you need to find a farmer that you like and trust.”

Grillers feed the burger-hungry masses as Solon Beef Days, July 16, 2021. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

Zoe Pharo is grateful to have found a home in Iowa this summer. She owes tremendous thanks to Kate of Wild Woods Farm and Carmen, Maja, Helaina, Carlos and Meredith of Sundog Farm for fueling this article.

Paul Brennan is Little Village’s news director.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 298.


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