Plains Justice – CAFOs and Threats to Human Health

Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) pose significant risks to human health. Photo: US Department of Agriculture

Environmentalists have long voiced concerns about confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. This increasingly commonplace method of raising a lot of livestock in a small space has been linked to serious detrimental health effects as well as soil and water contamination.

Today, Plains Justice, an environmental law center working on behalf of the public, released “Public Health and Livestock Confinements: Identifying Threats to Human Health.” Donna Wong-Gibbons, Ph.D., author of the report, calls it “a science-based review of some of the available research and literature on livestock confinements, specifically on the possible public health risks associated with those.” To request a copy of the report, write to

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke with Wong-Gibbons by phone today. Our interview appears below. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

BPGL: What can readers expect to find in the Plains Justice report?

WONG-GIBBONS: The report focuses partially on Iowa, although similar problems exist in other states where there are livestock confinements. It’s designed to be a plain-language document, so that the public, regulators, and legislators can all read it. It’s intended to help educate people about some of the potential public health problems with CAFOs.

Yet, it’s also designed to help educate people about some of the ways that those problems can be addressed. It’s important, when you’re talking about public health, to identify the problem, then to also look at solutions. So that’s what the report is trying to do.

Donna Wong-Gibbons, Ph.D., speaking on behalf of Plains Justice at a community meeting. Photo: Courtesy Donna Wong-Gibbon

This is not original research, but a review of some of the available research on this topic. It’s based on findings from a number of different sources, including a lot of independent researchers and organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. There’s much more research on the topic than what’s included in the report.

BPGL: What are the main areas of concern you identified in your review?

WONG-GIBBONS: We group those concerns into three general areas: air quality issues, water quality issues, and pathogens.

BPGL: Let’s start with air quality. Most people are aware of the presence of a strong odor of animal waste coming from CAFOs. Is that the primary concern with the issue of air quality?

WONG-GIBBONS: Yes and no. Some of the air quality issues described in the report relate to ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which have strong odors. But odor is only part of the concern. These substances are also airway irritants that can cause respiratory problems. If you’re in a situation where you’re exposed to a high level of ammonia in the air, your eyes are going to water. Your throat is going to hurt. These are the biological and physiological signs that something is wrong — that these compounds are not good for you.

Particulate matter is also an issue with livestock confinements. This includes things such as dust, feathers, fecal matter, and fur. There is extensive research on associations between airborne particulate matter and respiratory problems or cardiovascular problems.

But as far as the irritation from ammonia and hydrogen sulfide — that’s essentially what you see in areas that are downwind or surrounding these facilities. There have also been documented respiratory problems in the people who work in these facilities — in livestock confinements — that are likely due to those exposures.

Babies and children are more vulnerable than adults to respiratory illness caused by CAFOs. Photo: © Lisa Eastman -

BPGL: Are certain people at special risk in the community near a CAFO?

WONG-GIBBONS: People at particular risk are people with any kind of respiratory problem that’s pre-existing, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. Children are also particularly vulnerable, in part because babies’ lungs don’t fully develop until after they’re born. They are much more susceptible than adults to things that cause airway impairment.

A study in Iowa looked at the development of asthma in school children and found that it was higher in children who lived closer to a livestock confinement compared to other children. Of course, there are almost certainly other factors. Most diseases are complex physiological processes that have may have multiple causes or contributors. But the bottom line is, if you can remove something that you know to be harmful or potentially harmful, then you improve the likelihood that an individual is going to have a good health outcome.

BPGL: What are the water quality issues related to CAFOs?

WONG-GIBBONS: One of the concerns is contamination of both ground water and surface water with manure or animal waste. That’s a real problem, because not only does it introduce bacteria, but it also can introduce other chemicals and hormones into the waterways.

Iowa has a documented problem with waterway impairment. In April 2009, a Department of Natural Resources report listed 439 water bodies with a total of 581 impairments in Iowa. These impairments include things like bacteria, algae , and suspended sediment, and many of them can be linked back to manure spills.

Whether it’s an intentional spill, or whether it’s unintentional through equipment or storage facility failure, the end result is essentially untreated waste being dumped into waterways.

It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t make sense from a basic, sort of commonsense, public health perspective. You don’t put waste into water that you’re going to then drink from.

There are also concerns over recreation. If our waterways don’t support fish — and some of them will not, for various reasons — if a river won’t support fish, then you potentially lose the recreational use of that waterway. And if a waterway is contaminated with bacteria, then it’s not really a safe waterway for kids or anyone to be swimming in — let alone drinking.

Poultry housed in CAFOs often eat feed treated with arsenic, which poses a health risk to humans. Photo: US Department of Agriculture

BPGL: I understand that arsenic is often added to poultry feed. That’s surely an issue that affects the environment and human health.

WONG-GIBBONS: Arsenic in poultry feed is used as a growth promoter, yet arsenic is highly toxic. It is implicated in several different types of cancers, can damage blood vessels, and can cause neurological problems in both children and adults, even at low levels of exposure. It has no beneficial use that I’m aware of. By feeding arsenic to chickens or to other poultry, essentially what we’re doing is artificially creating an exposure route (arsenic in poultry manure) to a dangerous chemical.

BPGL: Farmers who administer sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics say they do so to promote growth as well as to prevent the spread of infection in confined quarters. What did you discover about the link between overuse of antibiotics in animals and disease protection in humans?

WONG-GIBBONS: It’s actually kind of both – overuse and inappropriate (nontherapeutic) use. But to clarify, it’s not the amount of antibiotics that are used as much as it is the way in which they are used. The idea behind antibiotics is that they are used to treat and kill bacteria. But when you’re using antibiotics in a way that is not killing bacteria, then you’re creating a situation where bacteria can become resistant to the antibiotic. And so, the concern is that antibiotics are not being used in an appropriate therapeutic manner.

Medical practices have changed, and what we are seeing is more cautious use of antibiotics in people because many medical associations recognize that antibiotic resistance is a serious problem. And yet, antibiotic resistance is still a problem because there are still other sources of antibiotic resistance, such as CAFOs. What we’re potentially faced with is a situation where a child or an adult could be infected, and there’s not going to be an effective treatment. And that’s the real concern.

An influenza of mixed (swine/avian/human) origin resulted in a pandemic in 2009. Photo: US Department of Agriculture

There’s another connection between animal health and human health, and that is pathogens, such as influenza. Researchers have expressed concerns for years that an influenza of mixed (swine/avian/human) origin could result in a pandemic, and that is exactly what has unfolded in 2009. We have been incredibly lucky that H1N1 (“swine flu”) mortality is relatively low and that the virus is not highly contagious. But the reality is that the scenario of a mixed genetic origin influenza pandemic unfolded as predicted/projected and could be deadly serious with a more virulent pathogen.

BPGL: Are you giving any cautionary statements to the public?

WONG-GIBBONS: The first step is just being aware of it. I think most people who don’t live close to a livestock confinement probably have no idea that these kinds of issues are out there. And people who are buying from grocery stores probably don’t understand the link between antibiotic resistance and current practices in livestock production. So, I think the first part of it is education — letting people know, letting legislators know, letting the public know what the risks are.

BPGL: Do you anticipate any backlash from Big Ag?

WONG-GIBBONS: I really don’t know. The purpose of the report is not to be accusatory or to point a finger. It’s more to identify a problem and then look at ways that it can potentially be addressed. That’s my hope. I don’t know what the response is going to be. What I think is the most important thing is that people are talking about it.

Public health affects all of us — everyone. Ideally, a situation would involve multiple parties as well — communities, regulators, farmers, and legislators. If people are looking at solutions, based on scientific research — and this is reflected in the report — there is a way for farmers to be profitable and for public health to be protected. To me, that’s a win/win situation, where everyone can benefit.

Children living near CAFOs have a higher rate of respiratory illnesses. Photo: US Department of Agriculture

BPGL: We’ve had conversations with farmers who say the amount of animal fecal matter is far less than the amount of human fecal matter that is spilled through improper septic tank systems and city systems that are old and fail. One said, “Clean up your own mess before you come after farmers.”

WONG-GIBBONS: To me, that’s a shortsighted view. I don’t know whether the farmer’s data about fecal matter is correct, but I would be interested in the research that is available. But, if you’re talking about something that could potentially make the environment safer or make things safer for humans, then it doesn’t make sense to me, from a public health perspective, to not do that.

If human waste pollution is a problem, then absolutely, that is something that should be worked on as well. But to push it to the side and say that it’s okay to pollute waterways because someone else is doing it too, to me is just shortsighted.

I think it is so important to try to get away from the attitude that people who talk about these issues are somehow anti-farming. To me, the ideal situation is one where they can continue to be profitable and public health is less of a risk. That’s win/win, and that’s where we need to be going. It’s a long-term, big-picture view.

BPGL: You said the report has proposed solutions. Can you tell us a bit about them?

WONG-GIBBONS: As far as solutions go, these are answered in better detail on pages 12-13 of the report, but the basics are as follows:

Better control and monitoring can help eliminate air and water quality issues, as well as identifying when there is an issue that needs to be corrected.

The spread of pathogens, both bacteria and viruses, can be limited through simple handwashing and the use of personal protective equipment like gloves.

Eliminating arsenic and nontherapeutic antibiotics as growth promoters removes the threat that they pose. Data from Denmark and other countries shows no overall negative effect on food production as a result of eliminating these from food animal production. And, they demonstrated a reduction in antibiotic-resistant bacteria — further proof that it is possible to preserve both profit and health.

Donna Wong-Gibbons works for Plains Justice as a public health specialist. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and has post-doctoral training in molecular biology and epidemiology. She serves as the Executive Director for the Iowa chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is one of the organizations that has expressed concerns about the nontherapeutic of antibiotics in animals because of the risk it poses to human health.

“Plains Justice is a public interest environmental law center working for environmental justice and sustainable communities in the Northern Plains region of the U.S., including eastern Montana and Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. Our docket includes Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and energy policy work.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Francis Thicke on Farming Alternatives, CAFOs, and the Future of Farming

Francis and Susan Thicke

Francis and Susan Thicke own and operate Radiance Dairy near Fairfield, Iowa. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

For the past several weeks, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) has been running portions of our interview with Francis Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee), candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.

Francis and his wife, Susan, are organic dairy farmers who recently received the 2009 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture. Francis is also a scientist and a highly respected thought leader on agricultural policy.

In this, the fourth post in a continuing discussion with Thicke, he talks about changing the minds of Big Ag with sustainable models, the rules regarding concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs), and his vision for the future of farming in Iowa. We believe Thicke’s views about agriculture are applicable not only to Iowa, but also to the nation.

If you are an Iowan who believes in sustainable farming practices, please join us in supporting and — most important — casting your vote for Francis Thicke in the fall. If you have questions for Mr. Thicke, please write a comment below or contact him by email at . —  Julia Wasson, Publisher

Farming Alternatives

BPGL: Big Ag right now seems to enjoy the concept of larger farms, fewer fence rows, fewer trees in the landscape or anything that competes with crops for moisture and sunlight. Traditional farmers are eliminating a large amount of the biodiversity, not just in the soil, but in the air and water. There are just fewer creatures around. We’re also losing vast quantities of soil through erosion.

Yet many of the farmers we’ve talked to absolutely believe they’re doing the right thing. It’s very difficult to educate them that even small changes would be helpful over a period of time. How can anyone convince them to change?

Francis Thicke speaks to farmers on his farm.

Francis Thicke shares information with fellow farmers on a field day at Radiance Dairy. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

THICKE: I think the way to do it is to find alternative models that are successful, that are ecologically sound, profitable, and socially responsible. And then try to expand adoption of those successful models, rather than try to fight what we’re not necessarily in favor of.

For example, in Wisconsin, grazing dairy farms — as opposed to confinement dairy farms — were considered new and innovative about 20 years ago. Grass-based dairies can be designed to be ecologically sound and productive and competitive. Research at the University of Wisconsin shows that grazing dairy farms are as profitable — or more profitable — than confinement dairy farms. Over time, about 25 percent of the dairy farms in Wisconsin have become grazing dairy farms again.

I speak at a lot of conferences on organic and grass-based dairy production.  These are the kind of things that spread by word of mouth and by farmers visiting other farmers. We get lots and lots of visitors and tours to our organic, grass-based dairy farm. Farmers learn from other farmers to a great degree — often more than from books or educational programs. That’s one way to spread these successful models.

BPGL: There are a lot of agricultural models that are good in Europe, especially their standards for CAFO farming and water quality, cleaning up their rivers and such. But here in Iowa, Big Ag just won’t accept a lot of those standards. Big Ag seems to fight everything in the legislature that makes farming more sustainable.

Better Standards for CAFOs

Veal calf in crate

Veal calves are often chained by the neck in small wooden crates where they are unable to walk or stretch their limbs. Photo: Courtesy Farm Sanctuary

THICKE: You’re right, but I think things are changing somewhat. I was surprised to see that Michigan recently passed a law that will phase out farrowing crates, chicken battery cages, and veal calf hutches. And California passed a new law that will outlaw tail docking, which is cutting off cows’ tails for the convenience of those who milk the cows.

The point is that we’re seeing more examples of society asking for better standards for how animals are raised. A recent article in the Farm Bureau Spokesman said that Michigan is the seventh state to ban gestation crates, the fifth to ban veal crates, and the second to ban chicken battery cages. California was the first to ban battery cages with Proposition 2. I think what we’re seeing here is citizens demanding changes in how agriculture is done.

BPGL: Do we have battery cages in Iowa?

THICKE: Iowa is the largest egg producer in the country, and most of the hens are in battery cages here in Iowa.

BPGL: That makes my skin crawl.

A female pig attempts to escape from an inhumane gestation crate. Abrasions are visible near her eyes - caused by constantly rubbing against the crate's metal bars. Photo: Courtesy Farm Sanctuary

THICKE: Relative to confinement agriculture, I’m calling for local control and also calling for increasing the separation distances of newly constructed concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) from homes and rural communities. I’m also calling for requiring construction permits for smaller CAFO units. Right now, construction permits are required for 1,000 animal units and above, which equates to 2,500 or more hogs. Currently, many of the new CAFOs are being built just below the threshold requirement for a construction permit. For example, many hog CAFOs are being built to house 2,490 hogs, so they don’t require a construction permit and don’t need to go through the whole process of the matrix, and so on.

BPGL: What is the matrix? Is that a method for calculating how many head are in a CAFO?

THICKE: The master matrix scoring system was created by the legislature in 2002. The matrix scores applications for CAFO construction permits in a number of areas, including water quality, air quality, potential effects on neighbors, etc. The maximum number of points in the matrix is 100.

In the political process of implementing the matrix, it got watered down quite a bit, so it only requires a 50 percent score to pass. Most CAFO permit applications pass routinely, and they generally all take the same easy points. So, although the matrix was intended to make the process of qualifying for a CAFO construction permit a little more rigorous, it is largely ineffectual.

The Future of Agriculture

Radiance Dairy's grass-fed cows

The cows at Radiance Dairy are grass fed. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

BPGL: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Iowa agriculture?

THICKE: I am optimistic. Although Iowa agriculture faces some major challenges — such as increasing energy costs and greater severity of weather events due to climate change — we have the scientific knowledge and technology to make our farming systems more resilient, energy efficient, ecologically sound, and socially responsible. Iowa agriculture can become part of a new and prosperous green economy.

Change is inevitable. The question is, will we change through our own design and creativity, or will we be forced to change by circumstances that control us because we have failed to take preemptive action? I am running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. to help foster visioning, dialogue, and action to take Iowa agriculture into the future.

This is the end of our conversation with Francis Thicke.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion

Part 2: Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy

Part 3: Francis Thicke on Small Farms and Local Foods

Part 4: Francis Thicke on Big Ag, CAFOs, and the Future (Top of Page)

My 5: Francis Thicke, Organic Dairy Farmer, Political Candidate

Indie Film “A River of Waste” Issues Urgent Call to “Vote with Our Ballots as Well as Our Forks”

Don McCorkell, Director of A River of Waste. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

Don McCorkell, Director of A River of Waste. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

“Only after the last tree is cut down, the last of the water poisoned, the last animal destroyed… Only then will you realize you cannot eat money.” — Cree Indian Prophecy

So begins the documentary film A River of Waste, setting the stage for a discussion of how agriculture in the U.S. — and indeed, much of the world — has left behind the family farm and turned into profits-at-any-cost Big Ag. And there are costs — costs to the animals kept in filth and confinement; costs to the environment in air, soil, and water pollution; and costs to the health and well-being of people.

This excellent indie film presents a story that has been carefully researched and seamlessly assembled to show consumers just how dangerous CAFOs are. But it doesn’t stop there; it presents solutions in the form of regulations and practices that are common in the European Union.

Yes, there are solutions, but we will not see them implemented in the U.S. if we are not willing to take a stand. Like Upton Sinclair, whose book, The Jungle, revealed the horrors of the Chicago meat-packing industry and changed the way meat was processed, filmmaker Don McCorkell uses A River of Waste to reveal an insider’s view of CAFOs and spur us to action to protect our environment and our very lives.

Drive along any country road in an agricultural state such as Iowa, where I live, and you’ll be hard pressed to find cattle grazing in open fields. There are some, but they are the exception, not the rule. The landscape that once hosted herds of beef and dairy cattle, swine, and poultry is all but lifeless except for crops. Instead, in all directions, you can find long, often windowless enclosures that house the animals — out of sight and, most likely, out of mind for consumers.

If you could enter these secretive, often guarded, rarely photographed interiors, you would find a process that efficiently grows meat animals by the thousands in a single building. Beef cattle and pigs eat high-protein diets laced with growth hormones that cause them to quickly add lean meat. Because it’s illegal to give growth hormones to chickens, many CAFO farmers add arsenic to their feed for the same effect. Many meat animals gain so much weight so fast that their legs cannot support them. And most are housed in spaces too small for them even to turn around as they grow to adulthood.

CAFO-housed animals raised for human consumption are also regularly dosed with sub-therapeutic amounts of antibiotics. Why antibiotics? To control diseases that are created by forcing them to live in, on top of, or too close to, their own excrement and each other.

All That Waste and Nowhere to Go

These chemicals — the hormones, antibiotics, and the arsenic — pass from the animals’ bodies into their feces. The feces — more politely called manure when discussing agriculture produced by farm animals is a prized commodity. Farmers spread it on their fields to fertilize their crops, or they sell it to other farmers. When animals roam freely in grassland and leave their feces behind as fertilizer, it’s an invaluable asset and improves the soil. It can even be an asset when collected in large volume and spread or knifed into the soil in an appropriate density on cropland. But in the excessive quantities produced in CAFOs, where the excrement from tens of thousands of animals collects in an enclosed location, farmers often have more manure than they have land to spread it on. If you’re a farmer, and you have thousands of gallons or hundreds of tons of waste and nowhere to dump it, what do you do?

Where human waste is highly regulated and generally processed in sewage treatment facilities, hundreds of millions of gallons of animal waste are dumped onto or drilled into the soil as fertilizer each year. When too much manure is spread on a field or when manure is spread on frozen ground, it washes into rivers and streams. But this isn’t just manure as nature produces it. Remember those hormones in the feed and the antibiotic injections and the arsenic? Sounds like a hazardous waste product to me.

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson talks about the lawsuit he filed against CAFOs. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre Films

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson talks about the lawsuit he filed against CAFOs. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre Films

In the film, we learn from Attorney General Drew Edmonton that a bill in Congress today essentially says, “No matter what they’re mixed with, and no matter what’s in them, no matter what may have been added to the feed that would then come out the other end — under no circumstances and regardless of the amount, would animal wastes be considered hazardous.

“Congress does some pretty stupid things now and again,” he goes on to say, “but this would be one of the stupidest they’ve ever done. Chemicals, processes, compounds are either hazardous or they’re not. If they are hazardous, you can legislate that word away, but you can’t legislate away the hazard. One of the constituents in poultry waste is arsenic. It would be like Congress saying, ‘Arsenic is not dangerous. Help yourself!’ ”

Although it varies due to weather conditions at the time the manure is spread, an average 20 percent of the fecal matter from CAFOs ends up in our waterways, according to the film. We unwittingly swim in it, fish in it, and water ski in it. We drink from the rivers that carry it. It causes fish and wildlife kills. And it creates algae blooms with devastating effects.

In A River of Waste, University of Tulsa Professor of Geosciences J. Berton Fisher, Ph.D. speaks aloud as he flies over Oklahoma in a helicopter. Looking down at the Illinois River striped with large areas of gross-looking slime, he interrupts himself in mid thought, crying out, “Holy sh*t! Holy sh*t! Look at the Cladophera in the river bottom…!”

As we continue to ride along in the helicopter with Fisher, we see lakes and rivers clogged with this blue-green algae to the point that, from the air, these waterways could easily pass for oddly colored grassy meadows. The algae floats on the surface of the water, where it grows until it dies, sinking to the bottom and depleting the oxygen in the water as it decays. When a fish enters this de-oxygenated water, it dies within minutes, as fast as if it were thrown onto land.

Overuse of Antibiotics

But let’s get back to the antibiotics for a moment. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, we learn in the film, “23 million pounds of antibiotics per year are used in veterinary practice, most of it in sub-therapeutic doses added to animal feed for growth enhancement.”

Dr. Michael Greger, Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States, says, “The vast majority of antibiotics produced in this country don’t go to people. It’s funneled into animal agriculture, and not to treat sick animals or even to necessarily prevent sickness, but is used as a growth promotant.”

But how could low levels of antibiotics be so important to growth? We don’t give human children antibiotics to help them grow big and strong. In fact, a University of Arkansas research study declared, “If we raised our own children the way we raise chickens, a two-and-a-half year old child would weigh 349 pounds,” McCorkell tells us.

If we don’t use growth hormones on our own children, why would we do so for the animals we feed to our children?

Michael Greger of the Humane Society talks about antibiotics and meat production. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

Michael Greger of the Humane Society talks about antibiotics and meat production. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

Greger adds, “The environment that most animals are produced in in the United States is so filthy, their immune system is so embattled by pathogens, that it takes so much metabolic energy — growth energy — to fight off all these bugs, that their growth suffers.

“So, if you give them antibiotics to wipe out the bugs, you put it in the water supply, on a mass level in these chicken sheds, then you just wash these chickens internally, externally with antibiotics. Then their body no longer has to fight off so many bugs, because it’s just such an unhygienic environment that they actually have a growth spurt…

“It saves money, but again, at what cost? … We are now facing a future in which a simple scrape can turn into a mortal wound, where simple surgeries can be anything but simple. We are running out of an arsenal of antibiotics. We cannot produce, invent antibiotics fast enough to combat these bacteria that are multiplying and reproducing much faster than our ability to fight infections…. The first-line drugs no longer work anymore. Often we have to jump immediately to the more expensive, more-side-effects drugs, because we’re running out of options.”

If nothing else about this film impresses the viewer, this should. “Put it this way,” a scientist from Plains Justice advocacy group told environmentalists at a meeting last night, “If you get sick with something that antibiotics can’t treat, you’re done.” As in dead. And all in the name of bigger, fatter meat animals and ever higher profits.

There’s more cheery news. Dr. Robert Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells us that there’s concern about the effects of the growth hormones used on the animals being “endocrine disruptors” in people. Johns Hopkins and other institutions are researching to find how the endocrine disruptors “contribute to breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and so forth.” He declares, “Growth promoters have no place in the human food supply.” But unless you buy organic meat or don’t eat meat at all, you’re eating them.

Taking Action

That takes us back to the question of less-expensive meat “at what cost?”

Join us if you can at a showing of the film on October 11 at 2:00 at the Iowa City Public Library. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

Join us, if you can, at a showing of the film on October 11 at 2:00 at the Iowa City Public Library. Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre

Retired Oklahoma Senator Paul Muegge, recipient of the John F. Kennedy Award, declares, “What we’re doing in agriculture today is not sustainable. This thing is going to break down at some point in time.”

“The public health effects are so severe that the American Public Health Association has called for a moratorium on new operations,” McCorkell says. By “public health” effects, he points to cancer deaths of children and adolescents living near poultry CAFOs in Arkansas, to families that can’t tolerate the bird waste being spread on farmland in South Carolina and Oklahoma and other states, and to elevated E. coli in poultry farm workers and their families. And who’s to say we won’t be poisoning our children for generations to come?

There are solutions, as I mentioned earlier. European Union nations have been leaders in finding them. A professor in Germany tells us that there’s strict limit on the number of animals per hectare, for example. Dense factory farming such as we see in the film is prohibited. Farmers avoid contaminating their neighbors’ homes and fields by using setbacks, broad strips of land that serve as a buffer against the accidental spread of manure and odor to neighboring property. And they’ve outlawed the addition of arsenic to poultry feed.

How can we get U.S. producers to adhere to standards like these?

If you believe that CAFOs are the wrong way to raise food, “vote with your fork,” McCorkell, a 17-year veteran of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, urges. Find those farmers who are sustainably raising their animals, and buy from them. Then speak up. Tell your legislators that CAFO pollution is unacceptable.

A River of Waste is packed with information that we all should know whether or not we are consumers of meat. As people whose lives and livelihoods are affected by water and air pollution, and contaminated soil, we have both a right and a responsibility to learn what is happening around us. Then, we must act. Just as publication of The Jungle spurred Congress to enact laws to protect both workers and consumers against dangerous meat packing practices, Congress can be made to legislate safer standards for raising food animals. But our Senators and Representatives cannot be expected to take that stand alone. The loudest voice they hear now is the voice of Big Ag. We, their constituents, the voters who determine whether they remain in office, must make it clear that we support sustainable, healthy food production and that we hold them accountable.

As McCorkell reminds viewers in the closing moments of the film, “We need to vote with our ballots as well as our forks.… Democracy can work, but it is not a spectator sport.”

“Sometimes,” McCorkell cautions, “the greatest threats don’t come from foreign terrorists. Sometimes they come from within.”

NOTE: Iowa City Environmental Advocates is sponsoring a showing of A River of Waste at the Iowa City Public Library on October 11, 2009 at 2:00 PM. A panel discussion will follow the 90-minute film. Co-sponsors include members of the RiverCry group and Blue Planet Green Living. Contact for more information. If you are unable to attend a public showing, you can purchase a copy on the web from Cinema Libre for USD $19.95.

Julia Wasson
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

A Symbolic Funeral for the Iowa River

The health of our rivers is something worth saving. Photo: © Viktoriya Popova -

Every so often, an issue consumes me. I read as much as I can on the subject. I attend lectures. I join action groups. I get involved. This is one of those issues: my beloved Iowa River. The Iowa River isn’t dead yet, but, like so many other rivers, it’s heading that way. And I think it’s worth saving. So, I decided to do something about it.

Tomorrow, on the Fourth of July, the Save the Iowa River (STIR) group will hold a mock funeral for the Iowa River in conjunction with Iowa City’s annual jazz festival. We’ll be rocking a pine casket, loaned by Gay & Ciha Funeral and Cremation Services, while playing “Down by the Riverside,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and other standards. We’ll march in true New Orleans style in a second-line, jazz funeral parade. We’ll have fun, while spreading the word — and water samples — to the public. And you’re invited to join us.

Why Care?

Why do I care about the Iowa River? Why should you? To me, it represents what agriculture has become, factories more than farms. Mass producers of meat and milk and eggs. The river also represents what has happened to Iowa’s government, pressed hard by lobbyists who refuse to allow “Agriculture” (with a capital A) to bow to more regulations. I see Big Ag as a large corporate machine that is profiting at the losses of our air and water quality.

The Iowa is just a river, but someday soon, every single drop of its 300,000 gallons per minute is going to be worth more than gold to us. Someday we will wish we had taken better care of it.

The Iowa River is a 300-mile long snake that curves and winds from the north, central border, down to the Mississippi River on the southeast corner of the state. As she blends into the waters of the Great Mississippi, she carries with her the signature content of all that Iowa has lost control of: her excess chemicals, her excess animal feces, her untreated human waste, and her best topsoil. She is the namesake river of our state, and she sends our pollution southward to the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean.

Defining the Problems

One problem with all the rivers in Iowa is animals. I’m talking about the 100 million farm animals in our state, most of which live in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These long, often windowless, buildings house chickens, turkeys, hogs, milk cows, or beef cattle. They’re factories, producing much of the nation’s meat, milk, and eggs.

CAFOs like this one contain hundreds of animals and tons of animal waste. Photo: Julia Wasson

CAFOs like this long, low building on the horizon, contain hundreds of animals and tons of animal waste. Photo: Julia Wasson

The Iowa River watershed, which covers approximately one-tenth of the state, houses about one-fifth of Iowa’s CAFOs. Why is it that this relatively small watershed has so many animals?

The answer is that we have some of the best soil in world. On the average, we often grow more bushels of corn and soybeans per acre here than in other parts of the state, and these crops are the main food source for the animals.

A farmer friend of mine explained it this way: “You don’t take the corn to the animals, you grow the animals where the corn grows.” Here, along the Iowa River, we grow 15-20 million farm animals per year.

Farm Chemicals

Most of the corn and soybeans used as feed is planted repeatedly on the same farmland year after year without rotation, a practice that requires additional fertilizers to bolster the nutrient levels to sustain it. Add to that the herbicides and pesticides that are used to increase the size of the harvest. An agricultural salesman told me that the average farmer will inject into, or spray onto, the soil about 10 pounds of chemicals per acre. Farmers in the Iowa River basin till and plant about 3 million acres. That’s 30 million pounds of agricultural chemicals in our watershed.

According to the Iowa State University Extension Service, depending on the rainfalls each growing season, and the soil types, about 20% of the chemicals placed on farm fields ends up in our rivers. That’s about 6 million pounds of chemicals floating in this waterway.

Animal Waste

The other crop that Iowa grows more of than any other state is animal waste. Pigs and cows produce 10 times more waste than an adult human. Turkeys and chickens produce about the same amount of feces as we do. And what do farmers spread on the fields to enrich the soil? Animal feces or, more politely, manure.

Manure is easily collected in all those CAFOs. And it contains some nasty stuff, according to an article in Rolling Stone:

Industrial animal waste contains ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can cause illness in humans, including salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptocolli and girardia. Each gram of hog feces can contain as much as 100 million fecal coliform bacteria.

Going back to that figure of 20 percent of what goes on the field ends up in the river, mathematically, this puts more animal feces in the Iowa River in one year than the combined human waste of the 36 million people who live in California for the same period of time.

There are very few regulations on animal feces. Environmentalists and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fought long and hard this winter to limit dumping of CAFO sewage on frozen ground. At the eleventh hour, Governor Culver signed a stronger version than the bill that came out of the House and Senate. But, we still have a long way to go.


Something else is floating in our river — in all of Iowa’s rivers, in fact: topsoil. Tiny, almost microscopic grains of rich, black topsoil, as fine as grains of flour. This silt is hundreds of times smaller than a grain of sand, and it floats down our rivers by the ton. It clogs the rivers and lakes, making them run shallower and wider, tearing away more of their banks each year. And, when we have a record year of rainfall, like last year, the resulting flooding creates disaster on a massive scale. But I don’t have to tell my fellow Iowans that. We lived it.

Why is there so much topsoil in our rivers? Some farmers choose to plow and plant right up to the banks of the rivers and streams. They do this to get the most money out of each year’s crops. Can you blame them? They have to make a living, too. Many states regulate the buffer strips that limit access of non-point-source (NPS) pollutants to streams and rivers. The Iowa legislature needs to improve its NPS regulations. Let’s hold their feet to the fire to protect our waterways.

Human Waste

The Iowa River is used for recreation, despite the pollution it carries. Photo: Mark Yuskis

The Iowa River is used for recreation, despite the pollution it carries. Photo: Mark Yuski

The State of Iowa controls human feces pretty well, except for the large numbers of inadequate septic systems and the unincorporated villages that have no sewage treatment at all. At least there are regulations in place for incorporated areas. But many of the sewage treatment plants that do exist along the river are not up to standard, and the city governments say they can’t afford to improve them.

In 2007, American Rivers ranked the Iowa as the third-most-polluted river in the United States. Last year, the Iowa River was ravaged by 500-year floods, which overran several cities’ sewage treatment plants and caused millions of gallons of raw human sewage to flow into it for weeks.

Despite all this, people still swim and waterski and boat in the Iowa River and the Coralville Reservoir that it feeds. Most don’t know what’s in the water they’re swimming in.


Another strange thing floating in our rivers here in the Midwest, mixed in with all the fecal matter and E. coli bacteria, is a Staph bacteria called MRSA, Methicillin Resistant Staphlococcus aureus. This potentially dangerous bacteria can be a cause of necrotizing fasciitis, the flesh-eating disease. Antibiotic-resistant Staph is increasingly prevalent in CAFOs, where farmers must use high levels of antibiotics to prevent diseases that would otherwise spread like wildfire in a highly populated confinement. (There’s a lot more to be said about MRSA, but Dr. Allan Kornberg covered it well in Hog CAFOs Can Affect Human Health.)

The Gulf Dead Zone

What happens when silt, pesticides and herbicides, phosphates and nitrates, human sewage, and animal waste enter a river? They cause massive algae blooms that grow in the sun, eventually dying and sinking to the bottom of the river. As the algae decays, the water loses oxygen. The resulting de-oxygenated water kills fish, crabs, and mussels. We can see this happening where the Mississippi River enters the Gulf of Mexico. Our river is partly responsible for a Gulf Dead Zone that could reach the size of New Jersey this summer.

Come March with Us

So, I invite all of you to join our funeral parade this Saturday, July 4 — in spirit, if not in person. We’ll meet by the river at 12:00 noon at the North end of Madison Street in Iowa City. Bring your musical instruments, umbrellas, and a wooden spoon to represent our Facebook group, SAVE THE IOWA RIVER (STIR). We’ll pass out kazoos to the first 20 people who arrive.

When we get downtown, just before the jazz festival, thanks to financial support from  Blue Planet Green Living (that’s us) and SNK Enterprises, Inc., we’ll hand out small bottles of Iowa River water with a list of the ingredients identified by the U.S. Geological Survey last month: phosphates, nitrates, E. coli, atrazine, metalachlor, acetochlor, ammonia nitrogen, chlorophyll,  chloride, and dissolved oxygen. Metalachlor is a chemical used for grass and broadleaf weed control in corn and soybeans. If you are a farmer, you will recognize metalachlor as Dual, Pimagram, Bicep, CGA-24705, and Pennant. Acetochlor is a class of herbicides known as chloroacetanilides. Trade names are Acenit, Guardian, Harness, Relay, Sacemid, Surpass, Top-Hand, Trophy and Winner.

March with us if you can, as we head south on Madison, east on Jefferson Street, and south on Clinton St. to Iowa Avenue. Bring the kids, your pets — and your umbrellas. This is one funeral that will be fun and educational. Whether or not you march, please sign our letter to Governor Culver, urging him to support stronger laws to protect our state’s rivers.

The Iowa River is not dead — yet. And we intend to keep it that way. We will start by stirring the waters.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Hog CAFOs Can Affect Human Health

Hogs in a confinement facility. Photo: Courtesy Farm Sanctuary

Iowa produces more corn, soybeans, hogs, and egg-laying hens than any other state in the US. There are approximately 100 million farm animals — and only 3 million people. Animal feces is actually the state’s largest product. MRSA bacteria — which can cause the flesh-eating disease — and swine flu are growing problems. Concerned about these facts, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) contacted Dr. Allan Kornberg, a physician who serves on the board of directors of the Farm Sanctuary. We asked Dr. Kornberg about the human health effects associated with farm animals in confinement. — Joe Hennager, Co-Founder, Blue Planet Green Living

BPGL: Here in the middle of Iowa, we have the largest number of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the nation. We have environmental problems, not just with air pollution, but also with water pollution. Another concern is the potential spread of disease from animals to humans. For example, we have a friend who recently contracted the flesh-eating disease from MRSA [antibiotic-resistant Staph]; she lost a limb and very nearly died. We also have had cases of swine flu in Iowa. What we want to know is, what are the effects of CAFOs — particularly hog confinements — on diseases in humans?

KORNBERG: The hot topic in the press has been the threat of a swine flu epidemic, and MRSA is ongoing. Then there are the general environmental and medical issues for workers and citizens in these communities, who are suffering from manure, and air and water pollution, and so on.

Let me start with MRSA. There have been some epidemiological reports of a spread of MRSA from pigs to humans in Iowa. MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus), or Staph in the common jargon. Staph is a bacteria that’s been around since the beginning of time — since before we humans appeared on the planet. Many humans carry Staph on our skin, in our noses, that sort of thing. It’s common that we can be carriers in ways that do not cause disease. If I put swabs in the noses of five people, we’d probably have one who would have Staph aureus.

MRSA is a kind of Staph aureus that’s resistant to the great majority of antibiotics. This is a big problem, since staph aureus — even if it colonizes healthy people — sometimes can cause disease. The typical way to treat it, though not the only way, is with antibiotics.

The reason there’s a lot of Staph aureus that’s resistant to the common antibiotics — methicillin is in the penicillin family — is the heavy use of antibiotics. This was initially true in human medical care and now, especially, in agriculture. This is particularly common in confinement agriculture — otherwise known as factory farming.

What happens, then, is that bacteria are exposed to antibiotics. Let’s suppose I have an infection and take an antibiotic that’s going to wipe out the great majority of disease-causing bacteria in my body. Because there’s billions of them, a few will evolve or mutate and will become resistant to the antibiotic. It’s just evolution on a very rapid cycle scale, since bacteria double every twenty minutes or so, as opposed to the rate of many higher species, which could be years or decades. So the bacteria that are resistant will survive and prosper in an environment where the other bacteria are being killed off by antibiotics.

Antibiotics are wonderful. They save millions of people. But by using antibiotics aggressively and overusing them, either in human health or in agriculture, we’re creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Some of this has happened in human medicine, which is why people shouldn’t take antibiotics for colds, because a cold is a virus, and antibiotics don’t help.

What’s been happening in agriculture for a long time is the move toward placing animals in confinement conditions, which creates great distress and cruelty to the animals. The agriculture industry pushes harder and harder with the confined space to get the high yield in production, treating animals as production units. If you throw a lot of antibiotics at the animals, you’re probably able to have more animals survive in a highly unnatural and difficult environment, and perhaps they’ll get larger faster. I think the last numbers I saw were, believe it or not, something like 70% of all antibiotics used in North America are used in agriculture, and most of the rest are used in human health and veterinary medicine.

What happens now are antibiotic-resistant bacteria are created in agriculture, especially in factory farming. Then some Staph aureus are converted to MRSA, and that MRSA spreads from pigs or other animals to humans. If one is cooking pork until it is medium- to medium-well-done, that will kill the bacteria. The people working in factory farms and slaughterhouses who come in contact with pigs, and the people who handle raw meat, including a food preparer at home handling raw meat — they are the ones most likely to come in contact with MRSA, if it’s present.

If a human gets sick from MRSA, it’s much harder to treat. Before the heavy use of antibiotics in confinement agriculture, the great majority of humans who would come into contact with MRSA would be in hospitals — at least in developed countries. This is true for two reasons: One, you’re more likely to get MRSA if you’re frail or sick. And, two, there’s a lot of antibiotics in a hospital environment, causing antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

But now we’re getting cases of what’s called community-acquired MRSA in otherwise well people.  This is due in large part to the overuse of antibiotics. Arguably, there should be very little antibiotics used in agriculture. In  confinement agriculture, given the conditions of filth and the close quarters, we’ve taken normal staph aureus that’s harmless to well people in general, and we’ve converted it to a kind of bacteria that’s resistant to antibiotics and can be more aggressive.

If someone gets MRSA — if you simply get a boil or a big pimple, it can be treated by lancing. But if it becomes an invasive disease, like pneumonia or sepsis (blood infection) — or urinary tract infections and the like, it can be life-threatening and difficult to treat. If somebody has a serious MRSA infection, they need to be hospitalized, because the only antibiotics that might work are the kinds you have to give by I.V. in a hospital, not just pills you can take as an outpatient. So we’ve really created a disease in the combination of factory farming in agriculture and the use of antibiotics in agriculture. Put those two together, and humans being close to pigs, in this example, that has enabled some of the spread.

BPGL: How does MRSA transfer into a flesh-eating disease?

KORNBERG: It can be flesh-eating. That tends to be scary language; it’s almost science fiction-like. You’ve probably heard of staph infections. Staph is simply a bacteria that can affect any part of the body. One part of the body that’s commonly affected is skin. If it’s a superficial skin infection or a boil, and the boil is lanced, or somebody takes an antibiotic, and it’s not MRSA, but regular staph, then everybody’s fine. If the staph is MRSA and harder to treat, and it gets to a deeper layer than the skin surface, it can spread like wildfire. It can really destroy deeper tissue: fascia, muscles, down to bone. Then that’s a catastrophic infection that can lead to death. If it’s a blood infection, it can require amputations and so on.

BPGL: Is there a name for that moment when it turns from just a surface infection to a deeper one?  Or is it just staph in general?

KORNBERG: It’s just staph in general. I think most physicians would tend to describe it by the anatomic area, so if it involved muscle, we might call it myositis and so on. The flesh-eating infection is when Staph or other bacteria invade the lining of muscle, the fascia, and its called necrotizing fasciitis.

BPGL: How is it possible for an average citizen to find out how many Staph infections exist, to find out if there’s an epidemic level of it in an area? There don’t seem to be public notices about MRSA, though there are notices about the swine flu.

Hogs in CAFOs live in crowded conditions. Photo: © Jura - Farm Sanctuary

Hogs in CAFOs live in crowded conditions. Photo: © Jura - Fotolia

KORNBERG: Probably one reason is that swine flu — or influenza in general — can spread rapidly and dramatically, person to person. You can have an epidemic in area, or a state or country or the world, fairly quickly. Although there’s no doubt MRSA spreads person to person, it tends not to spread in the same virulent way. If you have one  child in a school with swine flu, you might get twenty or fifty or a hundred the next week. If you have one  child with MRSA, you might get another case, but you’re not going to get a hundred. So while MRSA can be devastating, and people can die from it, it doesn’t have the same sort of spread that H1N1 or other influenza viruses have.

BPGL: MRSA bacteria is either airborne or waterborne. Does the means of spreading change depending on how it’s carried?

KORNBERG: If it’s airborne or waterborne, it could be in the soil. It could be communicated skin to skin, person to person, animal to person — any of those ways.

BPGL: We live in Iowa, an area of the country that has a higher particulate level of MRSA in the air and water. So do we, therefore, live in an area in which people are more apt to acquire such a disease?

KORNBERG: It’s certainly plausible and logical. There’s reason to be concerned about that, given the [agricultural] industry you have in Iowa, but I’m not sure that that’s been well-proven yet.

BPGL: Has there ever been a study about farmers — especially those who handle hogs — acquiring staph infections at a higher level than the general population? Is there any study indicating that people living in a state with a high concentration of CAFOs have a higher incidence of acquiring staph?

KORNBERG: What’s been shown so far is a number of individual cases in the US, Canada, and Europe. Presumably, it happens in the developing world, too, but it’s not been studied as well there. There’s been evidence of a few individual cases where — in a sophisticated lab like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), or perhaps some state public health departments, but not your average community hospital — they can subtype the staph. Although Staph aureus is one kind of bacteria, there are many, many subtypes.

If an individual, a farmer or slaughterhouse worker, has MRSA, and you know what its subtype is, then you go back to the place they work. If you find the same subtype there, you can reasonably conclude that it was an occupational exposure. That’s been done several times, and I think one of those studies took place in Iowa.

To pick an example, many years ago, there were environmental dumps like Love Canal, and you’d find a three- or four- or fivefold increase in certain types of cancer in communities, presumably because of an increase in a carcinogen, and those are highly suggestive kinds of studies.

But I don’t think there are any studies about MRSA and pig farming that have found such a huge increase on a population basis. All I’ve seen have been individual cases. I’ve not seen a population study. It might be that the best place to look for information would not be the hospitals, even a teaching hospital; it’d be the Department of Public Health. If I were a director there, I would hope I’d be interested in knowing this, and I would hope that I would not be influenced by industry in the state. That would be a good place to start — and/or the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

This long building is a typical Iowa CAFO (though it has a unique air-filtering device attached). Photo: Joe Hennager

This long building is a typical Iowa CAFO (though it has a unique air-filtering device attached). Photo: Joe Hennager

BPGL: I don’t know if we can draw a conclusion with a few stories, but we’re looking at the higher risk of disease, whether it be cancer from the chemicals or the disease from the bacteria that’s in the air and water. Is there any way you can contract some of these diseases by drinking water? Does it survive the water treatment process?

KORNBERG: No. For MRSA, that would not be a real risk. Your tap water should be safe. It would be more a matter of if the factory farms are dumping only partially treated manure — which they do — that gets into soil and water, that’s a way for it to spread in the environment. But if it’s gone through a treatment plant, it should be safe.

BPGL: If they’re spreading manure on frozen ground, and that gets into the waterways, and then into the reservoir, where people recreate — is it a possibility that they could get MRSA from the water in which they’re swimming?

KORNBERG: If they are swimming in it, sure.  You are at risk there.

BPGL: If we start taking water samples, is there a particulate level that would indicate a level of risk for swimmers or water skiers?

KORNBERG: To know if there’s a public health issue would require a laboratory saying something like: Last year we had two cases of Staph aureus and zero of MRSA. And this year, we have nine cases of staph aureus and three of MRSA. Then you should start to be concerned about that. It’s the amount that’s MRSA versus plain staph.

BPGL: If a member of the public went, not to the hospital, but to the Department of Public Health, to inquire, should this information be available to the public?

KORNBERG: It should be. I’m a physician, not a lawyer, but the short answer is, yes. The Department of Public Health should provide such answers, whereas a hospital, for confidentiality reasons and so forth, tends to be much more careful with such information. If there are communities that are seeing increased incidence of MRSA, then it would be the duty of the public health authorities to find out why and put a stop to it.

BPGL: What we’ve been told by a scientist is that, when air is sampled within twenty-five yards of a hog confinement facility, the particulate level of MRSA is thousands of times its normal safety level, even up to five miles away.

KORNBERG: If that’s true, that would really be a concern. From an epidemiological point of view, if you have higher concentrations of MRSA right around a farm and decreasing concentrations concentrically around that farm, but still higher than normal, until it eventually gets to baseline, that’s highly suggestive that the farm is related to the increased incidence of MRSA.

BPGL: There appears to be no filtering system, no devices placed for safety, to reduce any of the methane or any of the bad chemicals that are coming out of the hog CAFOs, let alone the bacteria.

KORNBERG: There are other bacteria — E. coli would be a common one — that come from pigs, from manure, that are a public health danger. Swine flu is a virus, so it has a different epidemiology. But in terms of skin-to-skin contact, a lot of it’s in manure, so there’s nothing really different about MRSA in terms of how a farmer would handle that. When there are very high concentrations of animals and manure in an environment, and it’s not being processed in a public health-friendly way, you raise the risk.

BPGL: I’m just kind of amazed that they haven’t developed some kind of filtering system for the air that escapes CAFOs, let alone the sewage that gets into the water. Just the airborne particulates alone are kind of frightening.

KORNBERG: I agree. And then it becomes a question of what does it cost, and how large is the risk, and what are the politics, and so on.

BPGL: The only way that the level of risk can be proved, though, is to use statistics as to the death rates and acquisition of these particular diseases. It doesn’t seem that information is available — or, if it is available, it isn’t being disseminated.

KORNBERG: That’s true. Having more MRSA in the environment around factory farms is a worry, because it suggests that, if not improved over time, it will run the risk of serious disease in humans. The conclusive piece, of course, in any epidemiological study would be if Iowa has very little MRSA disease in humans historically, and all of a sudden there’s a number of cases, and most of them are coming from people who work in factory farms or live near factory farms. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that the factory farms are related to the spread of MRSA in that situation. But one would have to have that data and make that conclusion, and that’s the responsibility of public health authorities.

BPGL: Farmers don’t allow anyone into CAFOs — not even public health people to count the pigs. Based on the possibility of contamination, they have the legal right to keep people out of their hog lots. So we’re in a position where the data is hidden behind the walls of these confinements. No one sees them, no one knows what’s going on. Then you also have the issue of the torture and cruelty being experienced by these animals, where cramming in one or two extra pigs per pen results in a few extra few dollars.

In the last days of their life, there’s absolutely no way hogs can lie down, or move around at all. We don’t know what’s happening inside these confinements, because farmers are worried that humans will spread disease to their entire herd.

KORNBERG: The conditions for the pigs in those environments are horrific. Pigs can’t turn around, and there’s filth, and so on. And then you have sows that are in gestation in those conditions. There’s much that is horrific for the animals in factory farming, and it’s certainly reasonable to be concerned, from a human health point of view, that if you have that many animals — especially pigs — in that kind of confinement environment, that you would run risks in human health.

You would have to show that’s real, and hopefully there won’t be, but if there were a few cases of necrotizing fasciitis with people that live or work around these farms, I would expect that the public health authorities would presumably feel some need to be aggressive. That would be their responsibility.

MRSA is not insignificant. Most people that get or die from MRSA are people that are in hospitals that have serious underlying disease. About a hundred thousand people a year get MRSA, and about 20,000, or one of out five, die, which is about as many people who die from HIV/AIDS in America.

So it’s not an inconsequential disease at all. Not that we should be any less sympathetic, if it’s someone that’s at the end of their life, who’s in their eighties or nineties and has multiple organ failure. But if it’s a healthy and vigorous person, who’s going about their life and picks up MRSA in the environment, it’s obviously a catastrophe. There’s real risk of more of that.

BPGL: I guess what I’d like to see is if the National Children’s Study, in which individuals will be followed from before birth and for several decades, will show that being in an agricultural-based community creates a higher incidence of certain diseases, possibly including the necrotizing fasciitis. I hope that they will get a good cross-section of children from agricultural families. The sampling in Iowa is only in Polk County (where Des Moines is located), and will be headquartered in an inner-city hospital.

KORNBERG: In general terms, if one were looking for MRSA incidence where MRSA is believed to be linked principally to hospital environments — this has been sort of the historical, common way; it’s in hospitals where there’s lots of antibiotics going around — then one would look around hospitals. If one is concerned about a new spread of MRSA from an environmental or industrial agricultural basis, then one would look where those communities are.

About Dr. Kornberg

Allan E. Kornberg MD is Senior Vice President for the National Initiative for Children’s Health Quality (NICHQ) and a pediatrician with 25 years of clinical and executive experience. Dr. Kornberg’s most recent healthcare post prior to joining NICHQ was as CEO of Network Health, a Medicaid health plan serving the poor in Massachusetts. He has also been Medical Director with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, the Executive Director and Medical Director for the physician-hospital organization at Scottish Rite Children’s Medical Center, and Chief of Emergency Medicine at Buffalo Children’s Hospital. Dr. Kornberg is a member of Farm Sanctuary’s Board of Directors, and served as the U.S. Executive Director for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, a global animal welfare charity based in London, UK.

About Farm Sanctuary

Rescued hogs at the Farm Sanctuary lead a very different life from hogs in confinement. Photo: © Derek Goodwin, Farm Sanctuary

Farm Sanctuary is the nation’s leading farm animal protection organization. Since incorporating in 1986, Farm Sanctuary has worked to expose and stop cruel practices of the “food animal” industry through research and investigations, legal and institutional reforms, public awareness projects, youth education, and direct rescue and refuge efforts. Farm Sanctuary shelters in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Orland, Calif., provide lifelong care for hundreds of rescued animals, who have become ambassadors for farm animals everywhere by educating visitors about the realities of factory farming. Additional information can be found at or by calling 607-583-2225.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living

Book Review – Animal Liberation by Peter Singer

While searching for photos to accompany this book review, we found large numbers of appalling examples of animal cruelty – in both food production and product testing. Readers should be forewarned that scrolling down this page will reveal photographs that may be very disturbing, and all the more so because they are real. – Publisher

Veal calves are often chained by the neck in small wooden crates where they are unable to walk or stretch their limbs.

Veal calves are often chained by the neck in small wooden crates where they are unable to walk or stretch their limbs. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

The third edition of Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, includes a dedication to “all of you who have changed your lives in order to bring Animal Liberation closer. You have made it possible to believe that the power of ethical reasoning can prevail over the self-interest of our species.” Readers not acquainted with the context may feel distanced by the dedication, at least until realizing there are three prefaces to the book. The first edition was published in 1975, and the preface begins, “This book is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals.” The last edition was published in 2002, twenty-seven years and thousands of protests later. Singer may well be correct in dedicating the book to an audience that has built momentum in the movement for animal rights and maintained the book’s importance throughout the decades.

It is a testament of society’s inertness that I was surprised by the book’s exposure of the severe mistreatment of animals. In Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Michael Pollan attributes Animal Liberation as an infallible argument for vegetarianism and animal rights. In a fairly comic scene, Pollan, who has been reading Animal Liberation, sits down with a steak, supposing his gut will win the debate. Like most Americans, Pollan found that the appeal of meat — its affordability (due to government subsidies which reduce the cost by as much as 15 times) and ease of preparation, as well as the fact that it is the social norm — affected his dietary choices, without his having rationally considered the effects of his meal. Singer’s work is the rationale needed to overcome “humanity’s” dependence on animals as food.

For his argument, Singer uses the word “speciesism,” a word that Spell Check does not recognize, but which is found on “discrimination of one species in favor of another, usually the human species, over another, esp. in the exploitation or mistreatment of animals by humans. Origin: 1970-1975; species + -ism.”

Singer states, “[T]he word is not an attractive one, but I can think of no better term.” His definition: “[A] prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species against those of members of other species.” It encourages and heartens me, as it may readers of the book, as I’m sure it does Peter Singer, to see that the term speciesism, on which the argument relies, has been accepted by external resources as a viable term.

In my experience discussing speciesism, I have encountered strong resistance when I compare the animal rights movement to the human rights movements. These objections are, as far as I’ve been able to measure, emotional, rather than logical, responses. I cannot present the entire argument in the article to attempt to persuade you of the similarities between sexism or racism, and speciesism, but I will share the book opening with you.

When Mary Wollstonecraft … published her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, her views were widely regarded as absurd, and before long an anonymous publication appeared entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. The author of this satirical work (now known to have been Thomas Taylor…) tried to refute Mary Wollstonecraft’s arguments by showing that they could be carried one stage further. If the argument for equality was sound when applied to women, why should it not be applied to dogs, cats, and horses? The reasoning seemed to hold for these “brutes” too; yet to hold that brutes had rights was manifestly absurd. Therefore the reasoning by which this conclusion had been reached must be unsound…

A dairy cow's ailing udder. A large percentage of dairy cows experience similar afflictions, and most of their milk is considered drinkable. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

A dairy cow's ailing udder. A large percentage of dairy cows experience similar afflictions, and most of their milk is considered drinkable. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Singer goes on to explain that what seems logically absurd is actually a solid argument. The fundamental point he makes is his definition of equality.

Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.

Today, we view sexism and racism as immoral and unjust because they do not give equal consideration to fellow human beings. Speciesism, however, receives a more complicated judgment. Like Pollan sitting down to eat his steak, most people are speciesists because it is convenient, and because society is not sympathetic toward “special” equality. Animals, however, because they are living creatures with functions similar to our own, deserve consideration for their rights. “What we must do,” Singer writes, “is bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have.” The primary basis for our judgments should be the suffering our acts might cause animals.

Ducks become so ill from the force feeding that they cannot lift their heads. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Ducks become so ill from the force feeding that they cannot lift their heads. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

The capability of an animal to suffer, in case you are questioning it, is proven through the same physical responses to pain as humans. Vocal responses such as cries or yelps, and physical responses such as contortions, writhing, or spasms are also evidence of suffering. Humans and animals share these signals, and if we do not deny the suffering of humans, Singer states, we cannot deny the suffering of animals. The argument from here develops into a problematic, though thoughtful and interesting, consideration of whose pain is more significant (a human’s or a horse’s). The important thing to remember is that to promote equality for all species is, according to Singer, something one must avoid, wherever it is not in our necessary interest to cause an to animal suffer.

“There can be no moral justification for regarding the pain (or pleasure) that animals feel as less important than the same amount of pain (or pleasure) felt by humans.” To think of an example of speciesism, then, one needs only imagine an instance when the suffering was inflicted on an animal(s) without preventing, in opposite and equal or greater measure, the suffering of a human(s). Thus, acts that are conclusively speciesist include purchasing beauty or cleaning products that were tested on animals, eating factory farm raised animals, or supporting a government that funds psychological and military experiments on animals. The book discusses these examples at length.

Chapter 2 reveals a plethora of appalling experiments conducted on animals for military, economic, or scientific purposes. This chapter will surprise — and probably shock — anyone who has not researched animal testing. The experiments are presented as immoral for a number of reasons. The most obvious case is unnecessary experiments, such as mutilating cats to see the effect on their sexual habits. Another example is experiments carried out without scientific rigor, leading to their being disregarded as scientific evidence. Experiments exposing dogs to high temperatures until they die have been repeated multiple times, with similar results, and again, for no apparent reason. The last example discussed, and the most broad, though not as overriding as the other two, is when the viability of an experiment depends on an animal suffering the way a human suffers. In this instance, the experimenters cannot deny that they are causing suffering to animals, because for their results to be applicable to humans, their subjects must react as a human would.

The chapter provides extensive examples of testing conducted on animals. Information about common procedures were the most compelling.

n this animal testing picture a monkey restrained by chains is about to undergo a Draize eye irritancy test. Substances such as shampoos, cosmetics, pesticides, weed-killers, household products and riot control gases are instilled into the animal's eyes. Generally no pain relief is given during this cruel animal testing. Photo: Brian Gunn /IAAPEA

In this animal testing picture a monkey restrained by chains is about to undergo a Draize eye irritancy test. Substances such as shampoos, cosmetics, pesticides, weed-killers, household products and riot control gases are instilled into the animal's eyes. Generally no pain relief is given during this cruel animal testing. Photo: Brian Gunn /IAAPEA ©

LD50 stands for “lethal does 50 percent”: the amount of the substance that will kill half of the animals in the study. To find that dose level, sample groups of animals are poisoned. Normally, before the point at which half of them die is reached, the animals are all very ill and obviously in distress. In the case of fairly harmless substances it is still considered good procedure to find the concentration that will make half the animals die; consequently enormous quantities have to be force-fed to the animals, and death may be caused merely by large volume or high concentration given to the animals. This has no relevance to the circumstances in which humans will use the product.… The U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment has estimated that “several million” animals are used each year for toxicological testing in the United States. No more specific estimates for the LD50 test are available.

The prevalence of these experiments, or similar ones, is not definite, mostly because of a lack of government regulation. Singer cites some numbers, however: “The National Institute of Mental Health funded over 350 experiments on animals… This government agency spent more than $30 million dollars on animals experiments in one year.” And, “Estimates of the animals used in the United States each year range from 10 million to upwards of 100 million.” He adds, “This is a conservative estimate.”

Singer reveals one example of an especially cruel experiment, though not alone in its horrific nature. “Harlow and Suomi describe how they had the ‘fascinating idea’ of inducing depression by ‘allowing baby monkeys to attach to cloth surrogate mothers who would become monsters’: The first of these monsters was a cloth monkey mother who, upon schedule or demand, would eject high-pressure compressed air. It would blow the animal’s skin practically off its body. What did the baby do? It simply clung tighter and tighter to the mother….” The results of these experiments, Singer says, are meaningless.

To end this type of suffering, one can take several steps. The first is to make your objections known to your politicians and to the public through letters and protests. The second is to stop purchasing products tested on animals: These products are labeled with an icon that says, “This product was not tested on animals.” Otherwise, Singer writes, “we should just do without any new but potentially hazardous substances that are not essential to our lives.” To adjust one’s habits and life may seem difficult, but when it is done out of respect and consideration for animal rights, then it becomes a moral imperative.

   	An unwanted dog from a dog pound has been left chained, on a dirty basement floor in a laboratory, after an experiment which involved major surgery. No after-care facilities were provided by the vivisectors, the blankets have been donated by animal welfare workers. Photo: Brian Gunn /IAAPEA ©

An unwanted dog from a dog pound has been left chained, on a dirty basement floor in a laboratory, after an experiment which involved major surgery. No after-care facilities were provided by the vivisectors, the blankets have been donated by animal welfare workers. Photo: Brian Gunn /IAAPEA ©

Another imperative, which you may consider as Pollan did, when you sit down to eat a steak for your dinner, is that we cease to eat meat or animal products that come from factory farms. The suffering that our diets impose on animals is immense, yet extraordinarily well concealed. Corporations raise the animals that feed America, and they take advantage of lax government standards to treat animals like “machines that convert fodder into flesh.” In order to make their products cheaper, animals are raised in poor conditions and fed unnatural food and chemicals that accelerate their development. “Once we place nonhuman animals outside our sphere of moral consideration and treat them as things we use to satisfy our own desires, the outcome is predictable.” The condition of the animals is deplorable.

In mass-market agribusiness, the chicken, for example, whose natural life span is seven years, lives only seven weeks. In the United States the average bird has 375 square centimeters of living space, too small for it to even stretch its wings. One farmer may be in charge of 250,000 chickens, who live in a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) in which it is poisonous to breathe. “When the birds must stand and sit on rotting, dirty, ammonia-charged litter, they also suffer from ulcerated feet, breast blisters, and hock burns.” Most chickens never see daylight until they are taken out to be slaughtered. Every year in the US, 5.3 billion birds are killed for meat. That’s about 25 birds for every citizen. They take the form of nuggets, wings, legs, breasts — fried, roasted, broiled, sliced, deboned, or stuffed. Fifty percent of the birds are sold by only 8 corporations, which signals a death of family farms.

The artificial insemination of birds raised for meat on factory farms is rough and brutal. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

The artificial insemination of birds raised for meat on factory farms is rough and brutal. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

As for pigs and cattle, the industries that raise our food have become more abusive, confining animals to space so small they cannot even turn around. The mother animals are systematically raped or bred, then separated from their children. The animals suffer a brutal, accelerated cycle of life and death for the benefit of the companies who own them. Their suffering is evident in this observation made by G. Cronin, writing about tethering pigs with a collar or chain to keep them from escaping from their open-ended stalls. “The sows threw themselves violently backwards, straining against the tether. Sows thrashed their heads about as they twisted and turned in their struggle to free themselves. Often loud screams were emitted and occasionally individuals crashed bodily against the side boards of the tether stalls. This sometimes resulted in sows collapsing to the floor.” Singer writes, “Their violent attempts to escape can last up to three hours.”

“The factory farm is nothing more than the application of technology to the idea that animals are means to our ends.” Tail docking, debeaking, and castrating are the deliberate physical mutilations used to control animals in extremely close conditions and states of suffering as a means to the end: money. The “end” has a catastrophic effect on the environment. “A modest 60,000 bird egg factory produces eighty-two tons of urine… In the United States, farm animals produce 2 billion tons of manure a year — about ten times that of the human population.” Singer tells us there were 3,500 incidents of water pollution from farms in 1985. “Here is one example from that year: a tank at a pig unit burst, sending a quarter million liters of pig excrement into the River Perry…”

Besides what comes out of the animals, what goes in is alarming. A 1000-lb. steer requires enough water to float a destroyer. If each pound of beef erodes 35 lbs. of eroded topsoil (as Singer claims), that would mean nearly two tons of valuable soil is lost. Further, the number of calories in the resulting beef we get as food is only 1/33 the number of calories in the oil that was used to produce it. This is most alarming, considering some corn grown in Mexico produces 83 calories of food with one calorie of fuel. Clearly a vegetarian diet is critical to sustaining our environment, as well as maintaining respect and equality for all living creatures.

Pigs raised on factory farms are confined in metal and concrete pens with hard slatted flooring. The live here until they reach slaughter weight of 250 pounds at six months old. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Pigs raised on factory farms are confined in metal and concrete pens with hard slatted flooring. The live here until they reach slaughter weight of 250 pounds at six months old. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Singer describes the vegetarian diet as a boycott against the way animals are treated. By refusing to purchase meat, the corporations responsible for raising the animals that produce the meat will be forced to use their resources in other ways — or go bankrupt. He sets the standards of the boycott: “replace animal flesh with plant foods; replace factory farm eggs with free-range eggs… replace the milk and cheese you buy with soymilk, tofu, or other plant foods, but do not feel obliged to go to great lengths to avoid all food containing milk products.” He admits, however: “Eliminating speciesism from one’s dietary habits is very difficult to do all at once. People who adopt the strategy I support here have made a clear public commitment to the movement against animal exploitation.”

As Will Tuttle, Ph.D. explains in World Peace Diet, our food choices are affected by the culture we have inherited from 2000 years of western culture. To recognize animal rights is a “radical break” from this culture. It is a just one, however difficult. Our culture has thrived by ignoring the immoral consequences of using animals for our pleasure or purpose. While we are deeply involved in humanity’s own importance, it is important to see the significance of all living creatures. “It is only when we think of human beings as no more than a small subgroup of all beings that inhabit our planet that we may realize that in elevating our own species we are at the same time lowering the relative status of all other species.”

Hung upside down by shackles, thousands of chickens are killed every hour at the slaughterhouse. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

The isolation of humanity has been profitable for few, and harmful all. To quote the French poet Francis Ponge, “Il faut mettre homme a sa rang dans la nature, il est assez haut. Il faut mettre homme a sa place dans la nature, il est assez honorable.” My translation of this is that humans (man, actually, though I’ll take the liberty of saying humans) should accept their rank in nature, which is high enough, and their place in nature, which is honorable enough. In essence, we must think of ourselves as one with nature, not outside of it.

Someone once asked me why lions should eat meat, but humans should not. Aside from the obvious physical evidence — that we have only two canine teeth designed for eating meat and that we are reared for walking, not for speed (a lion runs on four legs, not two) —  the most important reason is that our ingenuity enables us to hunt with weapons and presents us with the choice between killing for food and finding alternative ways of eating. If everyone in America would recognize this choice and eat a vegetarian diet, the impoverished people in the world could be fed eight times over. If it were possible to teach a lion how to eat corn, I would suggest it. As it is, I propose we respect the lion’s place in nature, as we should respect the place of all living creatures, human or non.

Elias Simpson

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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World Peace Diet – Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony

Californians Protect Farm Animals with Prop 2

Porked Off! A Critical Look at Iowa’s Water Quality

For 25 years, I’ve lived two blocks from the Iowa River. I used to water ski on, swim in, and fish from it. I don’t anymore. Twenty years ago, I felt safe including my children in these activities. We felt safe swimming in the river and eating bass, bullhead, catfish, and walleye from its waters. I had hoped I would be able to share the same experiences with my grandchildren someday.

I had hoped to share the experience of fishing the Iowa River with my grandkids someday.

The Iowa DNR warns against eating more than "1 meal/week" of many fish due to "elevated levels of mercury" or PCPs. Photo: © Pavol Kmeto -

Nowadays, you shouldn’t just drop in a line and catch your dinner. You should check with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) before you eat the fish. The agency does federally mandated testing for pesticides at least once a year. They test for other contaminants every two years, also as mandated by law. On their Fish Consumption Advisories page, you’ll find warnings like this one:

“The Cedar River from the Highway 218 bridge at Floyd (Floyd Co.) to the Iowa/Minnesota state line (39 mile stretch): Eat only 1 meal/week of smallmouth bass, walleye, and northern pike due to elevated levels of mercury.”

Sound healthy to you?

The DNR website has no current warnings about eating fish caught in the Iowa River. You can eat Iowa River fish, if you want to, but you won’t find many Iowa City residents willing to take the risk. We locals are a little less tolerant of the words “acceptable levels,” especially when it comes to mercury, PCPs, and E. coli.

Yes, that’s E. coli, the bacteria found in feces — from humans and animals. It’s in the water. No worries, though, according to the DNR; E. coli won’t harm you as long as your fish is cooked properly. But don’t try eating it as sushi.


The pollution in the Iowa River is a very complex problem. We can’t just point a finger at one group and say, “Hey, stop polluting our river!”

Communities of less than 400 houses can legally dump raw sewage into Iowa's rivers.

Communities of less than 400 houses can legally dump raw sewage into Iowa. © Joe Klune -

One of the main sources of E. coli is human sewage. In all of Iowa, there are more than 700 small, unincorporated towns that have no sewage treatment facilities. That’s right, nothing. Nada. Dumping raw sewage is not against Iowa law for a community with fewer than 400 houses. More than 100 such communities dump their sewage into the Iowa River. That’s thousands of gallons of raw human sewage, every day. Whatever goes down those people’s toilets goes directly into the Iowa River — eventually dumping into the Coralville Reservoir (the “Res”), our primary local recreation area. It’s the favorite place for boaters, waterskiers, swimmers, fishermen (and women), canoers, kayakers, and sunbathers.

A friend of ours was canoeing upriver of the Res last summer. “What’s that white stuff in the water?” he asked his companion. “Looks like toilet paper,” the other man said. It was toilet paper. And there were kids swimming not 10 yards away.

I understood from a conversation with Claire Hruby at the Iowa DNR last week that the economic recovery package should provide money to help fund waste water treatment plants for many of these unincorporated areas. Mix that with the low-interest loans already available from the State of Iowa, and there appears to be a chance this problem might get fixed. We did not discuss how soon.


Another major problem is caused by the fertilizers and pesticides that farmers use to grow corn and soybeans, Iowa’s staple crops. We’re the Corn State, you know. Last year we grew 2.2 billion bushels of it on 12.5 million acres. We used to have the best soil in the world for corn. Now we have to make it that way with tons of chemicals spread largely on fields with non-rotated, monoculture crops. When it rains, those chemicals don’t stay where the farmers put them.

There’s a solution to this problem, too. It’s a practice that both respects the waterways and saves topsoil. Crop farmers who have waterways on or next to their property can create “setbacks,” buffer strips of natural grasses between crops and streams. These buffer strips absorb the majority of the toxic chemicals and stop soil from eroding. But it gets better yet for farmers. Those who sign up for the program get paid NOT to plant crops in the buffer strips. It’s a program modeled on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to plant “vegetative cover, such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filterstrips, or riparian buffers.”

When these pigs are grown, they will produce 10 times the sewage of an average human.

When these pigs are grown, they will produce 10 times the sewage of an average human. Photo: © jura -

The biggest polluters, of course, are the CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Each year, Iowa supports about 25 million hogs, 4 million cattle, 8 million turkeys, and 57 million layers. Iowa, a state of only 3 million people, supports about 94 million farm animals. By support, I mean that we breed, feed, and deal with the fecal waste of those 94 million animals each year, over a quarter of which are hogs. The majority of those animals live in CAFOs.

Iowa is the equivalent of the second-largest hog-producing nation in the world. China is number one. Hogs produce ten times the fecal waste that humans do. According to NEUSE Riverkeeper Foundation,

Each and every day, those 10 million hogs produce fecal waste equivalent to what is produced by all the citizens in the following states combined: North Carolina, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, New Hampshire and North Dakota (100 million people). This ten to one ratio is verified by the research of Dr. Mark Sobsey (UNC, Chapel Hill).

In one year, just the hogs that live within the Iowa River water basin will produce more fecal matter than all the people in California (33,871,648) combined. That’s a lot of sh*t.

Iowa has a lot to be proud of. We are the corn capital of the world. We are the largest hog producer in the nation. And now, we are the toilet of our continent, or, rather, our rivers are. In 2007, the advocacy group American Rivers named the Iowa River the third most endangered river in the US. (According to the DNR, it is possible that American Rivers group selected the “Iowa River” to symbolize it’s location, understanding that there are many rivers in Iowa that are much worse and many better. The DNR conceeds that the Iowa River, indeed, does have its share of problems.)

According to American Rivers, “Iowans are proud of their state’s high rankings for education and livability compared to other states, but on a crucial aspect of the Clean Water Act, our state lags far behind the rest of the nation. Iowa has failed to adopt adequate clean water rules thirty years after passage of the Act that set a baseline to keep water quality from getting worse. If this baseline isn’t enforced, the state will continue to issue permits that allow increased pollution in the Iowa and other rivers. Faced with a growing load of sewage from both humans and livestock, it is no wonder that the Iowa River is one of the Most Endangered Rivers in America.” The floods last year made Iowa’s rivers even worse, creating exponential increases in runoffs of chemicals, topsoil, and sewage.


Just a few days ago, the Iowa Senate Agriculture Committee in both houses of the Iowa Legislature released a bill to the floor (S308 and H574) that will restrict the Iowa DNR’s ability to control midwinter sewage dumping. For those who live in warmer climates, let me explain the problem: In winter, when farmers dump raw animal sewage on frozen ground — especially when they dump in January and February, when the snow and ice are more compact — little, if any, soaks into the ground to fertilize next season’s crops. A much higher percentage of that raw, animal sewage washes directly into the streams and rivers during the first rains and snow melt. If the proposed legislation goes directly to the floor, there’s a chance that it just might pass.

Soil erosion

Soil erosion like this can be prevented by creating buffer strips along creeks and rivers. Photo: © Madeleine Openshaw -

Many environmentalists believe the bill should go back to committee, say, to the Natural Resources Committee (last time I checked, water was still considered one of our natural resources). If it goes to the floor and passes right now, this legislation will deal yet another serious blow to all of Iowa’s rivers.

But lest you think this is just an Iowa problem, consider that Iowa’s rivers dump into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Our waters touch South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, and eventually, run into the Gulf of Mexico.

Take a look at the NASA photographs of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. That colorful ring clinging to the land mass around the curve of the Gulf is our runoff. All those pretty colors in the water show the effects of the Midwest’s pesticides, fertilizers, topsoil, animal wastes, and human sewage hugging the shores of Louisiana and Texas. By this summer, due in part to last year’s floods, the Dead Zone is expected to grow to 10,084 square miles. That’s an area roughly the size of Massachusetts and 17 to 21 percent larger than at any time since the mapping began in 1985.

Due to the nitrogen and phosphorus runoffs from farm fields here in the Midwest, large blooms of algae are depleting the oxygen in the Gulf. This hypoxic water is causing massive fish kills, and driving shrimp and crabs closer to the coast as their habitats are destroyed. Iowa’s crops are killing crops in the Gulf. If the condition worsens, fishing and the coastal economies from Texas to Florida will be irreparably damaged. But the world will still have plenty of corn, soybeans, and hogs.

For those of you who follow Iowa politics, this small vote on this small bill brought a surprisingly large response from some of Iowa’s farm lobbyists, the Iowa Pork Producers, and the Iowa Farm Bureau. There is a lot of money behind these groups. In my opinion, Big Ag runs the State of Iowa. It’s our largest industry. This situation is no different from the coal lobby in West Virginia, the steel and auto lobbies of the Great Lakes region, or the lumber lobby in Washington and Oregon — environmentalists’ voices are drowned out by the clamor of Big Money. The quality of our rivers appears to be far less important to some folks than the almighty dollar.


So, this morning, I stood on the Park Road Bridge over the Iowa River, asking myself, “What can one person do?” Farmers may believe they are the stewards of the land, but they are killing our rivers. This doesn’t have to be a battle between us and them. We all need the rivers.

A winter view of my favorite river.

A winter view of my favorite river. Photo: Joe Hennager

This is simply a failure to communicate. I know that members of the Farm Bureau have children and grandchildren. Their future generations, too, will drink this water, eat the fish, and simply enjoy the rivers’  beauty.

There is some good news. Inventive minds are creating technological solutions for some parts of the CAFO problem. For example, Iowa’s farmers are throwing away a great potential energy source. Methane burns. It’s a fuel. It just needs to be captured and processed. It can be done. The technology is already working in California and has been for five years.

Roger Treloar, a local hog producer, has patented an organic air filter for hog confinements that naturally — and inexpensively — reduces the smell and methane release by 75%. If you want to call him, I have his number. There is more hope for the future.

But I’m not willing to wait until someone invents a solution to handling excess hog waste so that farmers don’t feel compelled to dump in the middle of winter. I won’t stand by and be silent until more farmers act responsibly and plant buffer strips along waterways.

I have decided that I cannot complain about this problem if I am partly the cause of it. You see, I eat meat. So, today, I am going to partially take myself out of the formula. I am going to pick one meat and stop eating it. I choose not to eat pork, because of what the pork lobby is doing in the Iowa legislature right now.

An average person in the US eats 62.8 pounds of pork per year. That’s roughly one 250 pound hog every four years. If I live another 20 years, that’s 5 less hogs consumed. The 1,276 or so pounds of pork that I would have eaten in my remaining years will not have any noticeable effect on the huge hog industry. But I’ll feel good, knowing I’m not part of the demand that’s causing the problem. By not eating the levels of nitrates that are often cooked into or are a part of the pork processing, I’ll even lower my chances of getting chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pancreatic cancer, or contracting MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that kills 18,000+ Americans annually. (I strongly suggest that you read about a study done recently at the University of Iowa.)

I'm saying goodbye to pork.

I'm saying goodbye to pork. Photo: © Artsem Martysiuk -

By not eating pork, I’ll be healthier and happier, and so will my favorite river.

The Iowa Pork Producers won’t notice that I’ve thrown away that last package of bacon from my fridge and two cans of pork and beans. I don’t think they’ll notice that I will never again buy hot dogs at baseball games, or eat pork ribs at barbeque restaurants. I will never buy another McRib at McDonalds or a ham, egg and cheese Croissanwich at Burger King. These businesses will not miss me. I am just one person.

Oh, my wife just said she’ll join me. Thanks, Honey. And now, six of our volunteers are cutting out pork, too. Thanks, guys. A few of my friends are joining in. We’re up to 72 hogs already, and I haven’t finished writing this article. Let me make some phone calls and send a few emails. I know some other folks, too, who agree that our Iowa River is an embarrassment to the world. (Check our group on Facebook: Save The Iowa River.) Maybe there are other Iowans living near any of the 72,000 miles of our Iowa waterways, who would like to be able to enjoy them safely.

If you are one of these folks, and you think you can live without pork, let me know. We are each just one person. Our not eating pork is a very small thing. The Iowa Farm Bureau will probably not even notice.
I believe the Iowa DNR should have the power to protect our rivers. I also believe that if I am going to complain about something, I should not be a part of the problem.

Maybe next week, I’ll stop eating beef. After that, chicken… Maybe I’ll have to become a vegan to save my river.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)