Iowa in the eye of a storm over the future of food

Iowa, indeed Buena Vista County, is at the beating heart of a protein production complex that is coming under increasing scrutiny and attack for consolidation and industrialization, challenged by an unforgiving Nature that whips back at our machinations.

Just last week, The Guardian with millions of readers ran a blistering story on Rembrandt Foods for the way it exterminated five million chickens at the onset of avian flu and then canned more than 200 workers. Longtime employees who had held their tongues for fear of The Man described how the corporation abused people and birds. A woman got arrested at a Timberwolves game protesting billionaire owner Glen Taylor, whose common-man touch is not felt in the henhouse these days. The company declined comment.

Sen. Chuck Grassley and others called meatpacking executives into Congress for talks about what happens when three or four companies control 75% of our beef and pork production, supplies are captive and prices opaque. Poultry and pork are fully consolidated into corporate hands. Beef is the last bastion of the independent producer. Senators are jawing on as they have since Teddy Roosevelt put away his big stick.

Environmental advocates released maps last week showing that most deforestation that feeds a warming climate is caused by meat production seeking more acres. We are eating the Amazon rain forest under cheese and ketchup. The government in Brazil won’t stop it.

Iowa leads the world in pork and egg production, and is in the pack with beef, turkey and other meat critters. Cattle are moving back to the state as the well gets drunk dry from perennial drought in the Great Plains. Dairy, too, as California burns. Our soil is rapidly flowing down the Mississippi River to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico — at least four times faster than Nature can replenish the soil in BV County. A growing world population demands more protein. The clock ticks on this game. 

Corn ethanol complements the meat complex by throwing off dried distiller’s grains as high-value livestock feed. To control its carbon emissions, the industry would like to lay pipelines across Iowa, and through Buena Vista, to bury that CO2 in North Dakota or southern Illinois holes. Most of the counties along the pipeline route are opposed to ramming it through with eminent domain (Buena Vista not among them), and it is starting to generate strong opposition. The corporate integrators of Iowa, led by Bruce Rastetter, will see to it that the pipe gets laid. So much for the government not being able to tell you how to use your land — you may be forced to accept a fracked-oil pipeline or liquefied CO2 on your ground, but not a grass buffer. We love our illusions about free people on the land.

At the same time, private equity funds are bidding up land long held locally in Northwest Iowa, with little regard for rising interest rates.

The consolidation is clear. The effects are real on the environment and in rural decline. You don’t have to travel far to see it.

There is a storm swirling around it all.

President Biden talked up anti-trust in food production during his State of the Union address. He mentioned it again during his recent trip to Iowa whose principle purpose was to hail corn ethanol when his numbers here are terrible. The Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the USDA are talking about anti-trust. Occasionally they announce price-fixing settlements. They have not filed papers to break up concentration. Instead, the Administration is trying to incent smaller meat producers to set up and make the food system more resilient to things like the Covid pandemic — which demonstrated how consolidation of everything into fewer hands made the supply chain so brittle.

It is more likely that markets and Nature will reorder the food system, and not the government.

Consumers demanded cage-free chickens and got them. Perdue Poultry is bragging about going organic. There is immense pressure on the pork industry from California voters to free up space for hogs in confinement. Massive feedlots in Kansas are running out of water from the Ogallala Aquifer. California and New Mexico dairies are facing water rationing; Wisconsin and Iowa start to look pretty good. But our rivers are rife with pollution from manure and commercial fertilizer already. Ballooning natural gas costs may begin to cure that problem as anhydrous ammonia becomes even more expensive. Water rates in Storm Lake, surrounded by livestock and ethanol production, are going up, up and up. We are bumping against our limits. Disease and drought are making industrial food systems unmanageable in places.

Huge change is underway while government stands by. When you can’t drink the water (forever chemicals in Spencer and Sioux Rapids for sure and probably everywhere else), or there is no water to drink, something is going to change. Who knows what happens to Rembrandt Foods in this wake and the flow of liquid eggs to the ice cream company, which affects the dairy in Sioux County? Already, tens of thousands of acres near Council Bluffs have been lost to corn production from the extremes of the Missouri River. Iowa is at the center of it all, as last week reminded us. The future of how food will be produced amid more challenging extremes is playing out in the here and now.

Art Cullen is the publisher and editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot. He won the the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 2017 and is the author of the book “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.” Cullen can be reached at [email protected].

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