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)

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

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