Farmers must lead, not resist, change
Iowans are getting a heavy dose of references to this state’s agricultural roots this election year with campaign talk of castrated hogs, peeping chicks and farmers with or without law degrees. These may seem like frivolous distractions, but farming enjoys an exalted status in Iowa politics.
That status is under attack, however, and not just from outsiders. Like other Americans, Iowans have grown skeptical of, if not hostile to, some aspects of modern farming, including genetically modified seeds and chemical additives in food. They want to know what is in their food and how livestock is treated.
The public may have a fondness for this state’s agricultural roots, but times have changed. Family farms are increasingly consolidated into sprawling corporate mega-farms, and livestock production has become industrialized, with hogs and chickens confined by the tens of thousands in climate-controlled buildings. Iowa got a black eye nationally with the recent guilty pleas to criminal charges by Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, for their role in the nationwide salmonella outbreak from tainted eggs.
The people of Iowa are also concerned about the impact of agriculture on the condition of the soil, drinking-water supplies, rivers and lakes. As Iowa hog producers expand their confinement facilities, they are running into public opposition not just near cities, where suburban sprawl creeps outward into the countryside, but in sparsely populated rural areas.
Meanwhile, Iowa state officials have yet to demonstrate they are serious about dealing with this state’s contribution to environmental damage that is attributable to agricultural land runoff via the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.
Iowa state officials, political leaders and agricultural industry leaders have tended to react by circling the wagons, characterizing critics as outsider enemies to be fought at every turn. Last week, for example, Gov. Terry Branstad said, “We need to be careful about these outside groups that have little knowledge of agriculture leveling attacks against an important economic driver of our state’s economy.”
A strategy of hunkering down and attacking critics is not in the interests of Iowa agriculture or the consumers of food in this country. It will only ratchet up the rhetoric and waste energy that should be devoted to solutions.
Instead, Iowa and other Midwest agricultural states should acknowledge changing consumer attitudes and take the lead on improving food safety, livestock conditions and environmental protection.
It is foolish and pointless to rail against changing public sentiment with “right to farm” constitutional amendments, as proposed in Missouri, or legislation that seeks to make it a crime to report mistreatment of livestock. Instead, Iowa and other Midwestern leaders should lead the way toward solutions.
Growing evidence suggests the industry can, and should, accommodate public interest rather than oppose change at every turn. The most recent example is Minnesota-based Cargill Inc.’s decision to give pork producers a 2017 deadline for eliminating controversial gestation crates that restrict the movement of sows. This is just the latest in a series of moves by major food companies and restaurant chains to impose changes in how livestock is treated, in response to consumer demands in the marketplace.
Battles will continue to be fought over food labeling, whether it be “organic” and “natural” or “contains food grown from genetically modified seed.” Farm state leaders should be part of the discussion on how to give consumers meaningful and accurate information about their food, instead of fighting labeling movements.
Farmers have a good story to tell. They are producing more wholesome and safe food today than at any other time in history, and at affordable prices. That requires new science, including seeds that are modified in the laboratory to produce bigger yields and resist pests and disease. Modern farming requires reasonable application of chemicals and fertilizer, and it can be done while preserving topsoil for future generations and protecting the quality of water.
Farmers and their supporters will have more credibility in telling this story if they are seen as leading the way toward change rather than being dragged to it by lawmakers, government regulators and consumers.