Iowa Ag Secretary Candidate Francis Thicke Talks to BFIA about rBST, GMOs, CAFOs, and Local Control

[by Jay Mattsson]

Today in Part II of a BFIA exclusive interview, Francis Thicke discusses his ideas for a better agriculture future for the state of Iowa. 

Click here to read Part I.  

BFIA:  How do you feel about the BST controversy with milk and cows?

Thicke:  You are referring to rBST, which stands for recombinant bovine somatotropin.  For people who aren’t familiar with rBST, this is a synthetically produced hormone that is similar to a hormone that cows naturally produce, but which is injected into cows so they have a higher level of the hormone, which stimulates them to produce more milk.  The term “recombinant” means that the synthetic version of bovine somatotropin is made through a process involving genetic engineering.

The FDA approved of the use of rBST in 1994, and it became popular with conventional dairy farmers because more milk could be produced by cows injected with rBST. There were some side effects.  It was more stressful for cows producing that much more milk, stress on the cows’ udders, their metabolism, and so on.  Some consumer groups have resisted the use of rBST in milk production.

The U.S. is one of the few developed countries that allows rBST to be used.  European Union countries and Canada do not allow it.  Consumer groups have long been concerned about some of the potential health effects of rBST, claiming that it is not as well researched as it should be.  Due to pressures from consumer groups, just within the last year, rBST has been largely withdrawn from the market in the U.S.  This happened because the companies that process and market milk said customers don’t want it so we don’t want to buy milk from cows treated with rBST.  So, it was phased out rather quietly in that way.

BFIA:  There’s another controversial subject of genetically modified food – can you tell us about your position on that?

Thicke:  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are now part of our culture here in agriculture — in the Midwest in particular. Some 85-90% of corn and soybeans are genetically modified.  There are some controversies, and some consumer groups who do not want to have these genetically modified foods in the foods they eat.  And so people have been calling for some time for labeling, and I would support that — labeling of foods that have genetically modified ingredients.  I think labeling is something that could be done easily enough.

Frankly, there’s not been a lot of research on the health effects of genetically modified foods.  Some argue that “well, they’ve been around for ten years and nobody’s died from them so they must be okay.”  The fallacy of that argument is that nobody has really studied to see if somebody has died, or has had some negative health effects from genetically modified foods.

In the very few feeding trials that have been done on animals, there have been some red flags raised.  For example, in lab rats eating GM foods, there have been low birth weights, increased death rates and some compromising of the functioning of the animals’ internal organs.  So I think, frankly, that we haven’t studied GMOs enough and we should be looking more closely.  One research scientist in Scotland did a feeding trial on GMO potatoes and found that rats eating the GMO potatoes had many negative health effects.  When he published his data, he was ostracized by his colleagues.  Actually, he was fired, and his research data was taken away from him.  So, there is politics involved when research results indicate something that’s not positive about GMO foods.

BFIA:  Can you tell us about CAFOs and how you feel about this issue in Iowa?

Thicke:  CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are very controversial in Iowa.  Many people who live in the countryside who have had a CAFO built near them have been very concerned that their quality of life has been compromised, and some will say their health has been compromised.  Some have said they can’t open their windows in the summertime, or they have had to live in their basement, or they have had to vacate their houses because the odors and toxic fumes were so offensive to them.   Frankly, the rules and laws we have in Iowa protect CAFO owners more than they do residents of rural communities.  I think that’s a problem.

I am calling for several measures to better regulate CAFOs.  One is to increase the required separation distances of new CAFOs from existing rural communities and rural residences.  I think we need to increase separation distances to help prevent these negative effects on residents who live in rural areas.

I am also calling for the Iowa legislature to reinstate local control.  That has been a controversial issue since 1995, when the legislature took away from county governments any authority to regulate where CAFOs are built.  If we could reinstate local control, so county governments had a say in where these CAFOs are sited, it would help somewhat in alleviating the conflicts in rural areas between CAFO owners and rural citizens.

A third thing I am calling for is a reduction in the size requirement for construction permits on new CAFOs.   Now, a construction permit is not required unless a new building will house 2500 or more hogs.  So, of course, many buildings are being built at 2499 hogs, to avoid the need for a construction permit.  I think we need to reduce that size requirement by half, so that more of these buildings would be required to have a construction permit and would be more closely regulated.

BFIA:  These things you advocate, would they make agriculture stronger in Iowa or would it make it harder for farmers to make a living?

Thicke: It would help to alleviate conflict in rural areas.  I think we have to look at agriculture as being multidimensional.  It’s not just about profitability.  It also has to do with preserving and protecting the ecological base that agriculture depends upon.  And, agriculture has to be compatible with the needs of rural communities.  Just the other day a farmer who lives in Davis County, who has several CAFOs built near his home, asked a question that really sums up the whole issue:  He said, “How many people have to suffer so that a few people can make some money?”  To me, that sums up the conflict over CAFOs in rural Iowa.

In most hog CAFOs, the hogs are not owned by the farmer who raises the hogs.  The hogs are owned by corporations that supply the hogs and the feed.  The farmer owns the building and raises the hogs on contract.  The farmer is paid on a per-hog basis to raise them.  So we’ve gotten away from our traditional farm culture where farmers owned their animals.  In some sense, the profitability is being taken out of the community, because the farmers are only paid a small percentage of the total profitability of raising the hogs.

Hog farmers are now in a vulnerable position. Most of Iowa’s CAFO hogs are owned by corporate contractors, but farmers have little or no negotiating power over the terms of their contracts.  With the current oversupply in the hog market, farmers are in a precarious position because their contracts could be modified or cancelled by the corporate hog owners.  Already, some Iowa farmers who raise hogs on contract have received notice of termination of their contracts.  Of course, farmers need those contracts to pay off their CAFO buildings, which may take 5 or 10 years to pay off.  If a farmer’s contract were to be cancelled before the building is paid for, the farmer would be left with an empty building without income to pay for it.

This has been a major problem in the poultry industry in southeastern U.S.  Many poultry producers built expensive CAFO buildings to raise poultry for contracting corporations, but when poultry production came into oversupply, the producers’ contract pay rates were reduced, and they were required to regularly invest in building improvements in order to keep their contracts.  Poultry growers in southeastern U.S. complain that it is difficult for them to make a living because the corporations who own the poultry they raise have squeezed the profits out of their grower contracts.  I fear that Iowa hog producers may find themselves in a similar predicament in the future. ~

Mattsson, previously a Minneapolis school teacher, stayed in Iowa after
getting his MA in Professional Writing. He had experience hosting an
interview show on the radio every week for 18 months and worked as a
book editor, associate producer and freelance writer/editor before
joining a full-service audio-production company in 1998. Active in
Democratic politics, Jay was a member of the Statewide Leadership
Committee on the Obama for President Campaign.~

Check back next Wednesday for Part III of BFIA’s exclusive with Francis Thicke.  Visit the candidate’s website


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