This page is a supplement to The FoodPrint of Pork.
In the last 30 years, the shape of hog farming has transformed. It used to be that tens of thousands of small-scale farmers would raise hogs to sell at local auction houses. Today, hogs are being raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — huge barns holding thousands of animals. The auction houses (where the bidding of multiple buyers formerly ensured farmers a fair price) have been replaced by contracts, under which farmers raise animals for a large pork company according to strict specifications, and for prices they have little say in determining. In many instances, farmers no longer even own the pigs. Across the country, the number of pork farmers has declined by 75 percent over the last three decades, whereas the number of hogs being raised has increased by nearly 50 percent. Now, four companies — Smithfield, Tyson, JBS and Hormel — control two-thirds of the entire US pork market.
The loss of hog farmers has had a negative economic impact on rural communities. The proliferation of hog barns, by contrast, with their enormous amounts of waste, has led to polluted rivers and wells, toxic air and diminished property values. Industrial hog barns have also drastically affected the quality of life for people throughout rural America: in some states, the impacts are widely felt; in others, they are concentrated (with brutal precision) in low-income communities of color.
Many such communities, in Iowa, North Carolina and Missouri, have been fighting the power of Big Pork for decades, facing intimidation, massive losses, and getting outspent by millions of dollars. Their stories illustrate how the pork industry has captured state houses across the country and written laws enabling hog farms to increase in size — causing air and water pollution without restraint — and how farmers and rural residents have been able to organize to wrest back control of their communities and their environment.
The opposition to the highly consolidated, polluting and politically powerful pork industry is important in and of itself, and such valuable stories attest to the energy and tenacity of rural organizing. Agricultural economist and longtime rural resident and observer John Ikerd said, “I see the future leadership of our rural communities rising up from the people standing up and resisting the CAFOs.”
While much of rural America has been taken over by Big Meat, thousands of people across the country are resisting, and building an alternative — one that is democratic and people-centered, not based on corporate interests. For the future of all communities that are in danger of being subsumed by corporate greed, we must support them and follow their example.
The smell hits you first. “It really just takes your breath away,” says North Carolina resident and activist Elsie Herring, of the odor that permeates her property. Her family’s home, where her mother lived for 99 years, is within smelling distance of several CAFOs, housing thousands of hogs. Their waste is collected in ponds called “lagoons,” each one as large as an acre. When the lagoons are full, the CAFO operator sprays the waste as fertilizer onto farm fields, creating a mist that drifts onto nearby homes. Herring’s mother, who died in 2001, “became a prisoner in her own home,” unable to sit on the porch because of the stench and flies. After the spraying, she said, “You can see the manure glistening on the screens.”
The stench is accompanied by noxious gases and dangerous bacteria. Researchers have found hog feces on the inside of Herring’s refrigerator and on and inside the houses of other community residents. Her family, like many living near hog operations, suffers from respiratory issues, headaches, nausea and other health problems.
North Carolina is home to the top two hog-producing counties in the country: Duplin, where Herring lives, and Sampson, both of which are almost 50% non-white.1 The state is second only to Iowa in hog production overall, with a $5.9 billion industry that, according to industry estimates, supports more than 44,000 total jobs.2 But those profits do not stay in Duplin and Sampson counties or in the other minority communities housing most of the state’s hogs. The good jobs are concentrated elsewhere. Those counties gain little except polluted air and water. A hog magnate literally wrote the laws governing hog production in the early 1990s, and the state’s government, from the General Assembly to the environmental regulatory agency, has been pro-pork ever since, with disastrous, unjust consequences for low-income communities of color.
Herring is one of many residents who has been fighting this powerful industry for decades, as an organizer with North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) and Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH), an NCEJN member. Building community power to fight the industry has been an uphill battle, but it is a fight for such basic human dignity that there is no giving up. “Why should anyone think they even have a right to blow animal waste on another person?” she asks. “That is still so mind-boggling to me.”
The right to blow hog waste onto other people’s property in North Carolina was secured by Wendell Murphy. Murphy was a hog magnate who eventually sold his pork company, Murphy-Brown, to Smithfield (the state’s largest swine company, now owned by the Chinese WH Group). He then served in the North Carolina General Assembly for a decade, and spearheaded the passage of laws worth millions of dollars to the pork industry.3 The state’s hog population nearly quadrupled from 1987 to 2017, growing from 2.5 million to almost 9 million, while the number of hog farms in the state fell by one-third,4 5 echoing national agricultural trends of increased production from many fewer farms.
The size of North Carolina's hog population in 2017 (nearly 4x as many as in 1987)
Establishing itself in North Carolina, the pork industry not only took advantage of the tax incentives and lax environmental regulations built by Murphy, but it targeted marginalized communities with little political power in which to build hog barns. Hog production is not concentrated near wealthy white suburbs, but in areas where residents have lower household income and fewer college degrees,6 which, due to a long legacy of structural racism, are often communities of color. African-Americans, Native Americans in the state, and Latinx populations are 1.5 times more likely than white people to live near an industrial hog operation.
The concentration of large livestock operations in low-income communities of color means that the impacts of those operations disproportionately fall onto these communities. The hogs of Duplin and Sampson counties alone generate as much waste as the human populations of Boston and Detroit.7 Rather than being treated by wastewater facilities, however, as the waste of those cities is, North Carolina’s hog waste is stored in open unlined lagoons and sprayed onto farm fields. These counties sit on the state’s Eastern Coastal plain, a low-lying flood-prone area with sandy soils and shallow aquifers, which makes it especially vulnerable to widespread water pollution in the event of lagoon spills or field runoff.
Living near an industrial hog operation puts residents at higher risk of kidney disease, bacterial infections and tuberculosis, as well as overall higher rates of death and infant mortality.8 Children whose school is near a CAFO are more prone to wheezing and asthma.9 Many North Carolina communities with high concentrations of hog operations also have poultry CAFOs, landfills, hazardous waste sites and other polluting industries.10 These inequities go back centuries: the regions of the state with the highest concentration of hog CAFOs also had the greatest number of enslaved people.
In 2014, community organizers including NCEJN filed a civil rights complaint with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the discriminatory impact of the state’s CAFO permitting process.11 EPA’s investigation found a “deep concern” that North Carolina’s hog laws were indeed discriminatory and ordered that the state change its policies.12 But with a state government still closely tied to the pork industry, it took another five years for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to revise the permitting process. Even then, the new permit addressed some of the problems, but made none of the systemic changes that EPA had ordered or that organizers had demanded.13
NCEJN and REACH explicitly organize for environmental justice, addressing the racial and economic inequities that determine where polluting industries are sited. A 2016 NCEJN statement on climate change calls out the climate change movement for being mainly led by privileged white people, and points out that change for social justice “comes from the bottom up more than from the top down.”14 The statement acknowledges that the grassroots network cannot compete directly with either big business or national environmental groups, but that more powerfully its “potential lies in contributing to a mass mobilization for justice.”
Seeking to transform power relationships — and after years of limited success in wresting any change from the industry-controlled state legislature and DEQ — in 2014, nearly 600 residents living near hog farms (mostly people of color) brought a total of 26 lawsuits against Smithfield which owns the majority of the state’s hogs. The hogs are raised by contract farmers who grow out the animals under conditions rigidly specified by the company. The lawsuits argue that Smithfield has the resources and expertise to manage the waste in less toxic ways.15
The plaintiffs have won the five cases that have gone to trial so far, winning decisive verdicts and large damage awards. But the pork industry is still one step ahead: the state legislature, led by a representative who had collected at least $115,000 in industry campaign contributions,16 passed new laws limiting who has grounds to bring such a lawsuit17 and capping maximum damages.18
Devon Hall, co-founder of REACH in 2002 and its Executive Director since 2014, is also investing in another strategy.
“If we have policymakers who aren’t addressing the concerns of the people, then we need new policymakers,” he says, and they must be cultivated from the most impacted communities.
To prepare new leaders, both REACH and NCEJN have focused on civic engagement, citizen science and leadership workshops. Hall describes the effort to build REACH’s base as two-part: 1) outreach to the Latinx communities, which make up the majority of local meatpacking plant workers; and 2) serving as a resource for hog growers, who Hall says sometimes “come to us by night” to discuss the exploitative and secretive terms of the contracts they must sign with the integrators. Smithfield and the other integrators pit these populations against each other, but they all face harm at the hands of the pork industry.
“I believe that in North Carolina, it’s time for a shift. There’s a shift in the atmosphere, and we’ve just got to lay hold to it and make it work.”
“You don’t put a seed in the ground today and expect a harvest tomorrow,” Hall says. Deep organizing takes time, building relationships, listening, understanding people’s needs and challenges. Hall points to the need for more funding of grassroots organizing, as this kind of community-based engagement work is time- and labor-intensive, requiring committed paid local staff, who will knock on the same doors over and over, gain people’s trust, and learn what they need in order to get involved. The work is well worth the investment, as it is transformational in the long term — “a grassroots, ground-shaking movement,” Hall calls it.
And after so many years of foul-smelling, water-polluting environmental injustice at the hands of the pork industry and its allies, this is exactly what many North Carolina residents need.
“The struggle is real,” Hall says. “A lot of it takes us all the way back to slavery. The system has to be changed.” But he, like other organizers with NCEJN and REACH, remains hopeful. “I believe that in North Carolina, it’s time for a shift. There’s a shift in the atmosphere, and we’ve just got to lay hold to it and make it work.”
Missouri ranks seventh in pork production in the nation. Pork is an $830 million industry for the state, which produces 3.4 million hogs annually,19 raised mostly in large-scale confinement barns controlled by giant meatpacking corporations. But in the center of the state, pastured pork raised by local independent family farmers is readily available in restaurants and stores. Patchwork Family Farms, a cooperative of 15 independent hog farmers, offers consumers an alternative to industrially-raised pork: hogs raised outdoors, without antibiotics or growth promoters, by farmers that are paid a fair price. It is a somewhat surprising success in a farm state with a politically powerful pork industry lobby.
Patchwork Family Farms pork is juicy and delicious, and consumers can feel good about how the animals are raised. These factors are important to Patchwork’s growth, but the cooperative’s real strength is that it is a project of Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC) — a hub of organizing around democracy and rural community needs, since 1985.
Missouri Rural Crisis Center was founded in the midst of the 1980s farm crisis, to address the farm bankruptcies and foreclosures sweeping the state and nation. The fact that the organization has never changed its name says a lot about the state of perpetual crisis rural communities have been living in for the last three decades. MRCC counts more than 5,000 mostly-rural Missouri families as members, with its priorities driven by their needs. The organization advocates and organizes for rural health care and food security and against the corporate takeover of democracy, particularly in agriculture. The pastured pork cooperative is one of its most unique, organizing strategies.
The percentage of hog producers that have gone out of business since 1987
Patchwork Family Farms began in 1992, at the initiative of MRCC’s hog farmer members. They saw the hog market rapidly changing and realized that prices were falling so fast that they would soon have no place to sell hogs at all. They read the signs well: the market consolidated dramatically in the 1990s, pushing out thousands of independent family farmers as both livestock auction houses and processors closed down.20 Large-scale pork companies moved the industry towards an industrial model of raising hogs in confinement and a market based on restrictive contracts with farmers. More than 80 percent of Missouri’s hog producers have gone out of business since 1987, when 18,000 farms were raising hogs across the state.21 Hog farmers were economic drivers of their communities, so, with the collapse of the hog market, small rural towns were hurt as well.22
MRCC hog farmer members organized to build an alternative. The organization had worked closely with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives for more than a decade, organizing and providing mutual aid during the farm crisis and since. MRCC enlisted the Federation’s help in conducting a feasibility study and in developing the structure of a pork cooperative.
Today, MRCC serves as the middleman between farmer and buyer, taking on the logistical aspects and negotiating the business and marketing relationships so that farmers can focus on farming. It’s a complex service MRCC provides — from knowing how to make use of the entire hog (not only the popular bellies and loins), to coordinating among multiple farmers and processors, to ensuring that the work is financially sustainable for both Patchwork and the farmers — all the while, maintaining an affordable price point for consumers. MRCC Communications Director Tim Gibbons says that, having an established organization like MRCC behind Patchwork has made it easier to navigate the “bumps in the road.”
Hog farmer John Storm has raised hogs all his life. His family has farmed in northwestern Missouri since the 1950s, and he raises more than 1,250 acres of corn, soybeans and hay, along with cattle and hogs. In his early days, he took hogs to a sale barn in Kansas City, where multiple buyers ensured that he would get a good price for his animals.
“But we just kept losing buyers,” Storm says. By the 1990s, he was selling hogs at a local sale barn, but the number of buyers there shrank too, to just one. Eventually, he says, a hog would bring him less than $20, while a ham in the grocery store cost $50. “It didn’t make much sense,” he says about the price disparity. “It was discouraging. It really made you mad. It wasn’t right.”
Storm connected with Patchwork in 1996, as his meat locker was processing hogs for the cooperative. He started selling a hog here and a hog there to Patchwork, and soon he was raising the animals for the coop exclusively. When asked if he would still be raising hogs if not for Patchwork, he gave a quick and unequivocal “No.” For a farmer who does not want to build a huge confinement barn and raise thousands of hogs on contract with a large company, there are few places besides Patchwork to sell the animals at a profit.
As the structure of the farm economy in Missouri turned upside down to favor corporations over independent family farmers, the creation of Patchwork Family Farms was one strategy, offering a secure market to some farmers, providing good food to the community and demonstrating an alternative. Gibbons has regular conversations with producers and organizations interested in starting similar endeavors around the country. “Any way that we can help to get more diversified hog producers on the land, we’re a resource for that,” he says.
Meanwhile, MRCC’s other organizing work addresses the underlying structural policy changes that altered the market for farmers like Storm in the first place. To change policy, you need to build power — and power-building is MRCC’s strong suit.
In the 1990s, Missourians watched as pork industry pressure in neighboring Iowa trampled community rights by eliminating county governments’ ability to object to construction of a new CAFO. “Local control,” as it is known, is an important tool for communities to hold large-scale hog barns accountable to the generations-old communities where they try to move in. In Iowa, a 1995 law stripped local control by removing all local and county government authority over decisions about where CAFOs could be built.23 In Missouri, however, communities long maintained local control with health ordinances, which granted each county the right to create local protections from the negative health and environmental impacts of CAFOs. The pork industry has attacked Missouri’s local control laws since the early 2000s, but MRCC members, family farmers and rural residents across the state who value “local control, not corporate control,” as MRCC’s slogan goes, successfully fought off these attempts at expanding industry power for nearly 20 years.24
Local control suffered a setback at the end of the 2019 legislative session, when a broadly unpopular bill promoted by the pork industry and its allies to overturn local control for CAFOs was passed by the Missouri state legislature and signed by the governor,25 despite widespread opposition from all corners of the state.26 A group of counties and citizens has filed suit against the new law.27 MRCC supports the case, and they are not the only one. Gibbons says that before the new law passed, “Tens of thousands of people took action [opposing the bill], showing up or contacting their elected representatives, some multiple times. The corporate response was to hire seven new lobbyists.”
Those thousands of Missouri citizens who took action in support of keeping local control were angry that the law passed despite widespread opposition, and they have continued organizing. Until the coronavirus pandemic canceled large gatherings, opponents of the law were holding meetings that drew as many as 200 people — a feat in rural farm country. MRCC has helped these efforts, because, as Gibbons says, “It’s our job in a democratic society to make our government do the right thing, and to respond to the values and needs of the people.”
For its part, the pork industry instead promotes a divisive narrative,28 saying, in effect, that city residents do not understand the needs of farmers and claiming that industry interests alone speak for agriculture. A similar message is promoted by Big Ag across the country; in Missouri and other states with strong organizations representing the real interests of small farmers and rural residents, the lie in Big Ag’s message is clear. The model of hog farming that Big Ag represents is dependent on large corporations and companies based in other states and countries. MRCC instead represents independent Missouri farmers and rural residents.
“We’re part of an even larger movement of people out here, both urban and rural, that know what’s wrong and know how to fix it,” says Gibbons. “They know that the system is set up against them and they know why — they know it’s big money. They know it’s big money buying our democracy.”
In 2020, as the coronavirus hit Missouri hard, MRCC has continued to do what it has always done: support rural communities and to use every moment as an organizing opportunity. It has been distributing Patchwork Family Farms pork through relief boxes and hot meals to thousands of people impacted by the pandemic; organizing webinars on voting rights; advocating for Medicaid expansion; supporting organizing efforts of Missouri meatpacking workers to stay safe during the pandemic; and hosting discussions about racial justice — all while fighting CAFO expansion.
In the midst of it all, the organization is celebrating its 35th anniversary, and has marked the occasion by moving from the small house that has served as its office for many years into a spacious new building. The new space includes community meeting rooms, a large kitchen for cooking demonstrations and vastly expanded cold storage for Patchwork Family Farms pork.29 The crises facing rural communities may show no sign of letting up, but MRCC members aren’t letting up either. The organization will continue working for structural change, building alternative models and strengthening democracy for Missourians now and in the decades to come.
In 2002, a man from several counties away proposed building a seven-barn complex to house 7,200 hogs about a third of a mile from farmer Barb Kalbach’s home in Adair County, Iowa. The proposal was shocking: the size of the facility was dramatically out of scale with the surrounding countryside, and the vast volumes of manure would cause terrible smells and endanger the area’s wells and streams. But since changes in Iowa’s laws in the mid-1990s, this type of proposal had become increasingly common. Industrial-scale hog operations had been rapidly going up around the state, leaving neighbors with polluted water and air but small legal recourse. Fortunately, Kalbach had recently read in the newspaper about a similar operation that had been stopped nearby, and she called the organizer of that effort, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI). An Iowa CCI organizer came to work with Kalbach and her neighbors, guiding them through letter-writing, petitions, phone calls and myriad public meetings with local and state officials.
“They don’t walk in and do it for you,” says Kalbach of working with Iowa CCI. “They walk in and they teach you how.” The campaign built enough pressure to stop the proposed hog operation, and Kalbach, having learned to organize, felt so grateful that she has been paying it forward as an active member ever since.
It has become increasingly hard since then to stop a CAFO in Iowa, but Iowa CCI has still notched wins in recent years, while also building momentum for larger changes to Iowa’s industrial agriculture-dominated landscape. The organization, with more than 5,000 members across the state, has always bridged the state’s urban and rural communities. Today, those members not only fight against CAFO expansion and for clean water, but also in support of immigration reform, a $15 minimum wage and Black Lives Matter. Diverse Iowa CCI members coalesce around urgent calls to action; most recently, a campaign pressuring Governor Kim Reynolds to issue a state mandate on face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19, as Iowa remains one of only two states not to have done so.
A factor uniting these issues is their impact on the lives of everyday Iowans. Iowa CCI works with people to build their power to bring about the change they need. Part of that work is shifting ideas of what is even possible, changing a narrative that is otherwise written by the state’s biggest business interests.
Agriculture is a powerful force in Iowa, which leads the nation in pork, eggs and corn production.30 Visitors are greeted at the Des Moines airport by glossy pictures of corn fields advertising the state’s importance in feeding the world. The National Pork Producers Council is consistently one of the top spenders in Iowa elections.31
The pork industry has gained influence at the expense of small farmers and Iowa’s rural communities and environment. The number of hog farms has plummeted from 40,000 in 198732 to 7,000 in 2017,33 while the number of hogs has more than doubled,34 to nearly 27 million.35 As hog farmers across the state have gone out of business by the tens of thousands, the average number of pigs per farm has increased tenfold, from 350 in 1987 to 3,900 in 2017. Hog farming has transformed from a key element of a small scale farm into a big business controlled by large corporations.
These millions of hogs are raised in huge barns (by the thousands) by farmers under contract to pork industry giants like Smithfield and Tyson. Contract farming arrangements have become the norm, but the meatpacking companies are also increasingly building out barns themselves and running them with hired workers, without a farmer in sight.
Iowa is home to just 3.2 million people. However, the waste generated by its total human and livestock population is equivalent to that of 168 million people, or nearly the population of Bangladesh.36 While human waste is processed in waste treatment plants, the 22 billion gallons of manure produced by Iowa’s hogs is stored in pits under the hog houses and then spread, untreated, onto farm fields as fertilizer. At these volumes, the manure is often spread at higher rates than the soil can absorb, creating runoff into streams, rivers and wells. Hog manure contains bacteria and other pathogens, along with high levels of nitrates, which can be fatal to infants and which have been linked to certain cancers in adults.37 Nitrates cause toxic algae blooms and “dead zones” in waterways. Today, more than half of Iowa waterways are classified as “impaired” by bacteria and by agricultural nutrients,38 and thousands of wells are contaminated.39 The state’s high nitrate load eventually makes it down to the Gulf of Mexico, where it contributes to an annual dead zone, which in 2019 was larger than the state of Connecticut.40
Given this unfettered pollution, it is perhaps not surprising that the pork industry has had a hand in writing the state laws that have governed CAFOs for the last 25 years. A sweeping bill passed in 1995, with the support of industry trade groups and lobbyists: curbed county governments’ ability to stop new or expanding livestock operations through zoning; limited the rights of citizens to file nuisance lawsuits against CAFOs; and allowed corporate ownership of livestock.41 Dozens of tax exemptions for confinement barns and large-scale manure storage are written into state law, and property taxes are capped for farm land and buildings — meaning that owners of multimillion-dollar hog barns are exempt from paying taxes on their full value. A new 2020 “ag gag” law, tucked into a bill primarily focused on coronavirus relief, is meant to deter animal welfare whistle-blowers, with high fines for trespassing at a farm or processing plant. The legislation’s sponsor owns hog confinement barns — photos showing animal abuses at his facilities had recently been released.42
When it comes to specific requirements to protect clean water, Iowa has long let the pork industry off the hook. For example, in 2013, the state adopted a plan to reduce water-polluting agricultural runoff, but it only recommends voluntary conservation practices for farmers, without setting clear timelines or benchmarks. A 2019 study of the plan found that at the current pace of change, it will take thousands of years to reach the pollution reduction goals.43
Despite the clear water-quality crisis in Iowa, caused in large part by literally tons of untreated hog manure, the pork industry adamantly opposes any steps to clean up its act — on the contrary, it continues to push for expansion. Two new, large-scale pork processing plants opened in the state since 2017, increasing the demand for hogs; 400 to 500 new or expanding hog CAFOs are built in the state every year, according to Adam Mason, Iowa CCI State Policy Director. One Iowa State University economist estimated that Iowa could support 45,700 CAFOs, four times more than the current total.44 Tellingly, the estimate did not account for the impact of increased water pollution.
The pork industry is one of the most powerful industries in the state, but it spins any threat to that power, whether a proposed environmental regulation or opposition to a new hog facility, as an attack on the family farmer. While many of Iowa’s hog growers are indeed still family farmers, the reality is that the companies they contract with to raise the animals set the standards for barns and waste management. These companies could absorb the cost of additional regulations or better waste management technology without impacting the farmers who raise their hogs. Instead, they paint clean water advocates as “anti-farmer” — even when many of those very advocates are, like Barb Kalbach, farmers themselves.
“The pork industry is not regulated as an industry,” Kalbach says, pointing to the legal and regulatory system that treats CAFOs no differently than small family farms. Yet in practice, she says, “It operates as an industry,” allowing them to have it both ways.
Iowa CCI has organized for state action on clean water, with both rural and urban residents, for decades, and with a wide range of strategies, from advocating for changes to the CAFO permitting rules to petitioning the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step in and address the state environmental agency’s lax enforcement of these rules. For years, these tactics have not achieved the policy changes aimed at, but as the state’s clean water crisis has become unavoidable, Iowa CCI’s drumbeat that something must be done has expanded the conversation about what that something should be.
“In terms of meeting the scale of the problem with bold solutions that inspire hope in people, a moratorium was where we had to go, where members wanted us to go.”
In 2017, coming off of a disappointing effort to tighten the permitting process, Iowa CCI launched a bold campaign, which a few years before would have been unthinkable: a call for a moratorium on construction of new or expanding CAFOs. Iowa CCI’s Adam Mason says that, after unsuccessfully seeking relief for the clean water crisis through the narrow avenues laid out by industry and industry-beholden policy-makers and regulators, they needed to go a different route.
“In terms of meeting the scale of the problem with bold solutions that inspire hope in people,” he says, “a moratorium was where we had to go, where members wanted us to go.” In fact, a 2019 poll showed that 63 percent of Iowans support such a moratorium,45 and that 26 of the state’s 99 counties have passed resolutions calling for changes to the existing permitting system, with more than half supporting a moratorium.46
In collaboration with Iowa CCI and its members across Iowa, state legislators have introduced CAFO moratorium bills in the last three legislative sessions. Statewide political candidates have taken up the call and campaigned on the issue in both rural and urban counties. National momentum is on their side as well: Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a similar bill in Congress in 2019, calling for a moratorium and an eventual phasing-out of large CAFOs, and the American Public Health Association has called for a moratorium, citing a wide array of public health concerns from water and air pollution to environmental injustice and diet-related disease.47
Working on several fronts in its fight for clean water, Iowa CCI and its partners at Food and Water Watch also sued the state in March 2019, asserting that it had violated its obligation under the Public Trust Doctrine to protect one of its major rivers for the use of all Iowans.48 The doctrine requires the state to protect the public’s use of natural resources; the message of the lawsuit is that Iowa’s lack of clean water protection has put the interests of pork industry over those of the public.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, virus outbreaks at meatpacking plants caused catastrophic backups in the pork supply chain, subsequent euthanizing of hogs, and widespread illness of plant workers. For Iowa CCI and its members, these impacts were yet another example of how an industry controlled by powerful interests fails people and communities. Iowa CCI and nearly 20 allied organizations have called on Governor Reynolds to implement an emergency six-month pandemic moratorium on CAFO construction, arguing that the public health threat posed by hog facilities could make people more susceptible to the virus, and that new hog infrastructure would be unnecessary especially at a time when supply chain disruptions have entailed mass euthanizing of the animals. The groups also noted that, as county-level CAFO approval hearings have moved online, the process has lacked oversight and accountability.49 The governor has not responded.
Nonetheless, Iowa CCI will continue to creatively organize with communities on issues that affect their lives through the pandemic and beyond, just as it has been doing for decades. As Iowans have watched their state government, universities, and other institutions fall under the influence of the pork industry, and have been frustrated by laws that protect industry interests rather than clean water and air, many have grown to count on Iowa CCI as a critical check on industry power that has not been found elsewhere in the state. Led by Iowa CCI, its allies, and members, momentum is building to reverse this power imbalance and to return autonomy to the people of Iowa.