Living in Iowa

Living in Iowa

by Paul Deaton

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared February 9, 2011 on Big Grove Garden.]

If we examine an economic atlas of Iowa from the 1960s, it is no
surprise that Iowa has high densities of production of hogs, beef
cattle, alfalfa, corn, soybeans and oats on our arable land. While the
Oxford Regional Economic Atlas has gone out of print, it seems doubtful
that much has changed in the more than four decades since it was
published. We have become the number one producer of eggs, so chicken
production seems likely to have increased, even without a map to see the
dots of production on it, but raising chickens has long been part of
Iowa culture, so that is not much of a change.

What has changed is the way these commodities are grown. The
increased use of animal and plant genetics has changed farming in ways
that would fill a thick book, making the animals “better” for food
production, and plants “better” for going through the human interface
with producing them. Genetics must, by definition, represent an
intellectual endeavor in which the geneticist seeks to foster the idea
of presently desirable traits into organisms. Farmers have been doing
this from time immemorial, culling the best specimens and using them to
propagate. If certain companies have begun to patent gene sequences, and
capitalize upon these patents to generate revenue, in an ever changing
world, in which biology continues to evolve, even these patents may be
only temporarily useful, if popular among most Iowa farmers. While many
express moral outrage over the work of the geneticists, for a number of
reasons, these folks are losing the struggle to keep development and
patenting of gene sequences from being controlled by a very small number
of companies.

In Iowa we can't help but notice the large acreages of row crops and
concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). It has increasingly
become a part of the landscape, inescapable from our view. As corn
prices increase on the world market, acres that were previously set
aside are going into production, and for the present, farmers appear to
be enjoying a boom in corn, soybean and other commodity prices. Set
aside the fact that this is partly being driven by drought in other
parts of the world, flooding in Australia, and other climatic factors,
and it should be a good year for even the least competent of farmers.
With regard to animal production, though, there is another story.

My friends who went on the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across
Iowa (RAGBRAI) last summer commented about how many CAFOs there were in
northwest Iowa. I presume they noticed because of the odor, which is
comprised of a complex mix of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and carbon
dioxide which can spread for several miles from a facility. The smell is
the most noticeable aspect of these facilities. In conjunction with my
work on the board of health, I came across a pamphlet
that outlines the impacts on communities of CAFOs. This report was
written by the National Association of Local Boards of Health (NALBOH)
which is hardly a partisan endeavor. NALBOH's mission is to strengthen
and improve public health governance, and despite legislative setbacks
to exert public health governance over Iowa agriculture, this pamphlet
is worth reading for Iowans concerned with the health impacts of CAFOs.

The odor smelled by my bicycling friends is the most obvious part of
the issue with CAFOs. The overarching concern is that concentrated
animal feeding operations produce way more manure than is usable in an
agricultural setting. Back in the 1960s, the manure from large livestock
operations could be spread on the land as fertilizer. With increased
quantities, there is a point where the land cannot absorb the manure,
causing runoff and damaging surface water. Too, storage facilities have
been created and these facilities cause a concern for contamination of
groundwater. In addition to these concerns, there are concerns with air
quality, introduction of pathogens into the environment, rendering
antibiotics ineffective, greenhouse gas emissions, insect vectors and
particulate matter getting into the atmosphere.

While CAFOs were identified as a point source polluter in the 1972
Clean Water Act, over the years, the regulations have been compromised
and the ability to enforce regulations that are on the books diminished.
The NALBOH report points to health impacts of CAFOs as increased
incidence of asthma, chronic lung disease, inflammation of the moist
membranes of eye and respiratory tract, olfactory neuron loss, chronic
bronchitis, chronic respiratory symptoms, declines in lung function and
death. Quite a list that is only beginning to be thoroughly understood.
In Iowa, there is inadequate statistical data to make reasonable policy
decisions on the matter of CAFOs and their health consequences. The
government seems unlikely to do anything to improve it in a year where
budget cuts on most everything are de rigueur and throughout the
legislative session, the debate has been more ideological than rational.

So Iowans watch and wait to see if the problem of the health impacts
of CAFOs will escalate high enough into the public awareness for people
to do something. In the meanwhile, bit by bit, the integrity of the
commons, long past prime, continues a steady erosion. That is what
living in Iowa is about on days like this.

~Paul Deaton is a
native Iowan living in rural Johnson County and weekend editor of
Blog for Iowa.

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