Immediate action needed on corporate ag pollution

Iowa agriculture has undergone substantial changes over the past 40 years. We see it all around us. Rather than crops and livestock being raised on tens of thousands of diversified family farms, Iowa has become ground-zero for concentrated industrial factory farms with unmanageable levels of manure, chemicals and pollution. The impact on our water and the failure of public officials to hold polluters accountable are two of the biggest issues facing our state.

In mid-April, I attended a meeting of DNR’s Environmental Protection Commission (EPC), a governor-appointed board whose mission is to protect and improve our environment and natural resources. I was there with about 15 other Iowa CCI members to testify because the EPC was voting on updated “environmental protection” rules for livestock factory farms.

We told the EPC about the issues we live with every day. We explained how a growing number of corporate-backed livestock operations has caused serious water pollution. Since 1998, when the industrial livestock industry really started ramping up, the number of “impaired” (polluted) waterways in Iowa has grown from 159 to at least 721 today (4½ times as many). We told EPC members about the health risks from this pollution, and how public water systems and taxpayers are burdened by the cost of cleaning up after corporate ag.

One of the biggest concerns we talked about was the connection between water pollution and increased cancer rates. Iowa is second in the nation for cancer rates, and the only state to see the rate of new cancers increase from 2015-2019.

CCI member Patricia Fuller from Council Bluffs said it plainly: “I was struck by the amount of people talking about cancer. My heart goes out to the people who stood up and shared their stories. My husband worked in agriculture and was diagnosed with cancer, and I used to work in oncology and often treated farmers. People are suffering, animals are suffering, and our officials are turning a blind eye. We need to keep telling officials this is an issue and continue to tell our stories so they can’t ignore us.”

Unfortunately, the handful of Big Ag lobbyists who attended the mtg – the Iowa Pork Producers Association, the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, and the Farm Bureau – got what they wanted: the EPC voted unanimously for weak rules and regulations and very little enforcement. Quite simply, they voted for putting corporate ag profits ahead of people and our environment.

That needs to change. The EPC needs to do its job by cracking down on factory farms and the water pollution they create.

Dr. Richard Deming, a Des Moines oncologist, told the The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference last fall, “If you did an aerial map of Iowa, we are — river to river and north to south — a bath of ag chemicals: herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, nitrates. We’re not yet at the point where we can say what every single chemical that ultimately gets into our water supply (or) onto our skin causes, but when you look at the amount of ag chemicals Iowans are exposed to compared to other states, I suspect that we’ll find that might also be one of the contributing factors.”

It’s long past time for our state to take action and protect us from corporate ag pollution. We need tougher standards, tougher enforcement, tougher fines and penalties, and a lot more water quality monitoring. We need real leadership at the EPC and the DNR, and real leadership from our elected officials at the Statehouse –including Gov Kim Reynolds.

These issues are incredibly serious, they demand our immediate attention. They aren’t going away, and neither are we.


Barb Kalbach is a 4th generation family farmer, registered nurse, and board president of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Barb can be reached at barbnealkalbach@gmail.com.


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