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CARES VS. CAFOS: Factors of Factory Farms


CARES VS. CAFOS:  Factors of Factory Farms

by Michael McAllister

A portion of the March 2 meeting of the Poweshiek County Board of Supervisors, held in the Community Room of the Drake Library, was devoted to a dialogue between representatives of Poweshiek CARES (Community Action to Restore Environmental Stewardship) and two of three supervisors, Dana Dawley, above center, and Larry Wilson, above right.  Melissa Eilander, above left, Poweshiek County Auditor and secretary to the board, also participated.

Formed in May of 2012, Poweshiek CARES is a non-partisan 501(c)(4) organization that consists of, in the words of one website, a group of “farmers, concerned citizens, and environmental activists residing in Poweshiek County.”  The group opposes large, corporate-owned and corporate-directed animal feeding operations, believing them to be “inconsistent with the values of neighborliness, good citizenship, and responsible environmental stewardship.”

Iowa, long known as “the land where the tall corn grows,” has made a mark for itself in several other aspects of agricultural production.  In May of 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture ranked our state first in number of hogs and pigs on inventory, in commercial hog slaughter, in pork export value, in number of sows farrowed, and in—calling upon another animal—egg production.

Primarily Pigs

Any animal feeding operation (AFO) can become a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) if it meets a certain size and time requirement.  Regulations detail what are called size thresholds for ducks, chickens, turkeys, sheep, swine, calves, dairy cattle, and beef steers.  In the case of hogs, for example, a CAFO is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as confining animals for 45 or more days per year.  CAFOs can range in official classification from small to large and can house from fewer than 750 pigs up to, depending on weight, 10,000 or more.  In a well-documented information paper, CARES reports that more than 60 CAFOs operate in Poweshiek County, “43 of them for hogs.”  CARES sees its mission as stopping “the proliferation of large corporate CAFOs in our country and state.”

Significant proliferation, however, is already in evidence.  A 2016 map of Iowa depicting hog CAFOs in two size ranges (from 500 to 1,000 animal units and above 1,000 animal units) reveals very little blank space.


Concern Beyond the Country

The issue of CAFOs may seem like primarily a rural concern until one is reminded of three simple facts:  We all breathe air, we all drink water, and we all are subject to disease.  CAFOs can decrease the quality of air and water and can increase the potency of infections and conditions that prey upon the human body.

The potential problems with air quality go well beyond the obvious issue of smell.  The concentration and containment of animal waste from CAFOs introduces a myriad of issues.  CARES, relying upon a number of authoritative sources, reports that manure produces chemicals such as nitrous oxide, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and methane.  These chemicals can affect humans—particularly those such as the young and the elderly who are prone to respiratory problems—by causing and aggravating not only the conditions of asthma and bronchitis but also neurological damage affecting reaction time and producing dizziness and nausea.

Just as we need oxygen to live, we also need water.  The harm that can come from the massive amounts of waste produced by hundreds and thousands of animals in confinement travels both up and down.  “Water bodies in as many as 35 states, in every region of the United States, have experienced water quality degradation due to [animal] waste,” reports Karl J. Worsham, J. D., Harvard Law School, writing in the Spring 2016 Journal of Food Law and Policy.

While the problems that CAFOs can present to air and water quality may be intuitive to some extent, a third major danger is less obvious but potentially the most insidious—the production of drug-resistant infections.  Because animals in CAFOs are so closely confined, the risk of disease is ever present; therefore, massive doses of antibiotics fortify animal feed not to fight specific pathogens that have been detected but rather, in a kind of overkill strategy, to prevent pathogens from occurring.  Likewise, antimicrobials and growth-producing antibiotics (GPAs) are induced to speed production and to reduce feed intake.  The antibiotics and antimicrobials are passed to humans through animal waste as it leeches into the water that people that drink and through the meat that people eat.  The result?  Stronger germs—superbugs.

“Antimicrobials in animal feeds have seriously compromised the defenses against many infectious diseases,” reports Ellen K. Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology at John Hopkins and the Bloomberg School of Public Health, in her 2016 book, Chickenizing Farms & Food.  She goes on to cite the frightening conclusions of the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and health agencies in countries such as England and Germany that “we now face the imminent end of the antibiotic era.”


Foul air.  Unsafe water.  Drug-resistant infections.  This list of potential CAFO catastrophes is far from complete since it does not touch on other issues—for example, the treatment of confined animals, the health of CAFO workers, the noise confined animals produce, the flies, decreased property values, increased stress on land owners, and the damage to the simple pleasure of stepping outside on an Iowa day and enjoying the out of doors on one’s land, an unquantifiable benefit that surely every Iowan values.

Of course an argument exists that CAFOs present advantages.  Producing more food for more people as quickly, as efficiently, and as cheaply as possible—the CAFO advocate will quickly cite such desirable outcomes.  Other benefits, such as job opportunities, increased tax bases, and expanded local markets for grain sales, will follow.  But Mr. Worsham counters that the combined benefits of CAFOs constitute “no more than a feather on an unbalanced cost-benefit scale when considering the broader risks to human health, the environmental harms, and the harm to the animals themselves.”

The Matrix and Manure

When representatives of Poweshiek CARES, some of whom are pictured below, engaged in a dialogue with supervisors Dawley and Wilson during the March 2 meeting, the subject of the master matrix soon came up—not the matrix that captured Keanu Reeves in a 1999 movie, but a web no less mystifying to the uninitiated.


In the language of CAFO management, the master matrix sets forth requirements that must be addressed for a corporation or a land owner to establish an animal feeding operation of a certain size.  Not all items must be met, however; plans and compliance are rated on a point system involving considerations such as air and water quality; distance from homes, child care facilities, public use areas, educational institutions, churches, and so on; specific manure management plans; documentation of community support; and—among still other items—a worker safety and protection plan.

A building permit can be issued to an entity whose plan earns 440 points, and certain concerns such as air and water quality call for a specific point level.

Most counties in Iowa, including Poweshiek, require the master matrix, a provision that must be renewed each January.

While the matrix is detailed and regulations complex, the degree of oversight in Iowa varies.  In the past, regulation has fallen short of federal standards, according to Emily Kolbe in an Iowa Law Review article from 2013 entitled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”  Kolbe, formerly a Grinnell College graduate (’07), writing as a J.D. Candidate at the University of Iowa College of Law, reports that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the entity responsible for overseeing Iowa’s CAFOs, was cited in 2012 by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for “fail[ing] to satisfactorily enforce CAFO regulations.”  The situation was resolved by a work plan arrangement, but even then not all issues were addressed.

Moreover, Iowa courts have made it possible for Iowa to maintain what Kolbe calls “prevailing lenience in the state toward CAFO’s.”  In one case in Humboldt County in 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that a local government’s set of regulations cannot be more stringent than the state’s if somehow those regulations are irreconcilable with the state’s.  In other words, county supervisors must likely defer to state requirements even if they wish to impose more restrictive provisions.

Still, county supervisors are the ultimate authorities governing the application process since it is the supervisors who can grant or not grant a building permit.

Some states have passed moratoriums on CAFO expansion and construction.  Pressure may be building in Iowa for such a move, but a moratorium is not foreseeable anytime soon.  Supervisor Wilson stated he does not favor a moratorium.  Indeed, even change in the master matrix seems unlikely at the state level, Wilson predicted; legislators are “quite frankly afraid” to open the matrix for comprehensive review, he continued, “because of the hailstorm it will draw.”  Wilson likened the potential fallout to that of the recent public employees bargaining debate.

Wilson seemed open, however, to discussion of language changes in the matrix, to more specific details, and to the possibility of a Matrix A and a Matrix B with the latter to apply to operations of fewer than 1,000 animals.  He would also like to see certain matrix items that require large expenditures on the part of a producer—say, $35,000 to $40,000 for a biofilter—generate more points, which would provide more incentive for producers to make such expenditures.  Additionally, other point values could be revised to encourage more favorable outcomes.  He credited Poweshiek CARES with “stopping the large, corporate-type farms,” adding that most of the feeding operation applications that the supervisors receive today involve “a young farmer putting up a building.”


Upcoming Events

A public hearing will take place March 9, 2017, at 9:00 a.m. to hear a proposal by Hudnut Farms, Jackson Township.  The Board meets on the main floor of the Poweshiek County Courthouse, South Annex, in Montezuma

On Tuesday, March 14, in the Community Room of the Drake Library, Grinnell College graduate Bill Stowe (‘81), CEO and General Manager of Des Moines Water Works, will speak on the topic of The Politics of Water.  The event is part of the annual meeting of Poweshiek CARES and is open to everyone.

Those wanting more information about Poweshiek CARES and the issues of its involvement may contact the organization’s president, Joyce Otto, at joyce.otto3@gmail.com, or Valerie Vetter, pictured above, at valvetter3@gmail.com.  Poweshiek CARES also maintains a Facebook page.

Our Grinnell will continue to report developments related to animal feeding operations in Poweshiek County.

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