Reprinted from the Des Moines Register March 22.
We’ll keep asking the question: How much pork can Iowa reasonably produce?
How much before more confinements drive people out of rural Iowa with noxious odors? How much before manure further damages lakes, streams and groundwater?
Every single candidate for governor and the Iowa Legislature should address these questions. The current governor and Statehouse leadership won’t.
Make no mistake: The pork industry is important to Iowa’s economy. The industry consumes a chunk of Iowa’s biggest-in-the-nation corn crop and helps support grain prices. But the very success of Iowa’s pork industry and its rapid expansion underscore the need for smarter regulation.
The industry is a juggernaut. In late 2017, there were 22.8 million hogs and pigs on Iowa farms, up 3 percent from the previous year and about 18 percent over the last decade. Production is forecast to grow more than 4 percent this year, according to an ISU economist.
Signs of a boom are everywhere. Two new pork-processing plants in Iowa will be able to process up to 30,000 hogs a day. Producers are snapping up land to put up new barns. A Department of Natural Resources study says, based on the state’s fertilizer needs, Iowa could support 45,700 concentrated animal feeding operations — four times as many as exist now.
Iowa is totally unprepared for the influx. State leaders refuse to address the current problems with CAFOs, let alone the expected growth.
But if you ask such questions, the Iowa Farm Bureau and other industry groups will call you anti-farmer. Who can blame most producers? They’re reacting only to demand for more protein, strong profits for pork and low prices for grain.
And yes, many pork producers have improved their operations to lessen the chances for spills and emissions.
But there are also bad actors who exploit lax federal and state rules. There are producers who build confinements that are one hog under the minimum required for regulation, as well as loopholes that let corporations with different owners — even if those owners are connected — locate next to each other. The result is that producers can stack confinements virtually side by side, and neighbors and regulators can do nothing about it.
On top of this, state, federal and industry officials resist protections. Large animal confinements are largely exempt from federal air emission rules, for example.
Gene Tinker, who was fired last year as DNR’s coordinator of animal feeding operations, said the state is allowing producers to build facilities on land that is “legally allowed but just plain are not good sites ... whether that’s next to housing developments, sinkholes or trout streams.”
But Gov. Kim Reynolds denies there’s a problem.
Iowa’s regulations “ensure CAFOs meet certain environmental requirements prior to building,” said her spokeswoman, Brenna Smith. “These safeguards ensure the state’s natural resources are protected.”
Really? If state oversight is so great, how did the DNR miss more than 5,000 hog confinements and cattle lots across the state until last August?
If the safeguards are strong, why have about 20 counties called for changes to the state formula that determines where confinements can be constructed?
Why are more rural residents calling for a moratorium on all confinements?
State lawmakers refuse to give serious consideration to a series of bills from Sen. David Johnson, an independent from Ocheyedan. In addition to calling for a moratorium, Johnson seeks to give local leaders more control over confinement construction and increase distances between facilities and neighbors. He also wants to create a study committee made up of state leaders, livestock association members and others to review rules that guide confinement construction.
Such a committee should consider this overriding question: How do we find the balance between growth and regulation?
Iowans deserve a governor who has the courage to take on big pork and pursue a balanced approach to livestock production.