Iowans Want to Stop Factory Farms. Why Don’t Our Legislators?

While our elected officials may kneel to the factory farm industry, the people of Iowa are fighting back for our health and environment to come before the profits of multi-billion dollar agribusinesses.

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Food System

by Emma Schmit

Over the past several years our campaign to stop factory farms has grown from a fledgling idea into a powerful movement. In 2021, legislation calling for a moratorium was introduced in the Iowa General Assembly for the fourth year in a row. What once felt like a long shot to address Iowa’s factory farm crisis has become a policy goal supported by the majority of Iowans. This urgent movement has also had implications far beyond Iowa and played an important role in introducing a national bill to ban factory farms. The progress we’ve made — from influencing the national conversation on factory farming to gaining support among Iowa’s legislators — has far exceeded what we once thought possible.

The movement against factory farming faced real challenges in 2020

Though we’ve come a long way, 2020 was a tough year. Growing a people-powered movement during a global pandemic is a difficult task anywhere, but in Iowa, Governor Reynold’s refusal to enact common-sense protections made it even more difficult. Nearly 350,000 Iowans, including one of our staff and several volunteers, contracted COVID-19. Many more were impacted by the illness or loss of a loved one, financial setbacks, the temporary closure of schools, and the day-to-day challenges of living in isolation. Building a transformative movement in an entirely virtual space presented a lot of obstacles that we had to overcome.

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And the pandemic wasn’t the only challenge we faced over the past year in Iowa. The derecho — a prolonged wind storm —that ripped through the state in August left more than half a million people without power and caused an estimated $11 billion in damages across the Midwest. Over 8,000 homes were destroyed or extensively damaged, nearly 12 million acres of cropland were destroyed in Iowa alone, and then-President Donald Trump provided only a portion of the requested disaster relief funding. 

As they say, bad things come in threes and in 2020 the third hit for Iowa came on election day when the state voted for Donald Trump with a 53% majority. Across the state, folks had high hopes that the Iowa House would flip to Democratic control in 2020. And by all rights it should have. Instead, we woke up on November 4th to see the Republican party had gained an even greater hold over our state.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly have long refused to consider any legislation that bucks the status quo — hyper-consolidation of Iowa’s agricultural economy — and the 2021 legislative session proved no different. Despite 63% of Iowans supporting a factory farm moratorium, Republican officials refused to assign the moratorium bills to subcommittee for debate. They’re clearly not feeling accountable to their constituents — instead they are carrying water for corporate farming giants like Iowa Select whose owners, Jeff and Deb Hansen, poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into their campaigns. 

The push to enact a factory farm moratorium has stayed strong

Despite these hardships, our members and the movement have persevered. A year like 2020 could have easily destroyed the momentum behind a factory farm moratorium. Instead, as we abruptly halted in-person organizing for COVID-19 safety and navigated one calamity after another, the power behind a moratorium continued to grow. Iowans’ unyielding determination for a moratorium on new and expanding factory farms can’t be derailed by a pandemic, natural disaster, or unfavorable leadership. And it certainly won’t be thwarted by the money or might of Big Ag.

While detractors can point out both moratorium bills dying in committee in an attempt to undermine the movement, we know that isn’t a legitimate metric at this juncture. Not when Iowa is ruled by a destructive, self-serving trifecta. Not when the House Speaker refused to even discuss the legislation because he profits from our dysfunctional system of agriculture. In spite of these obstacles the moratorium campaign still encountered unprecedented success. We recruited a record number of co-sponsors, received a record amount of media attention, and engaged record numbers of people in pressuring their legislators to support a moratorium on factory farms. That’s a better metric to measure this movement by than the actions of a couple industry-backed elected officials blocking the bills.

The ripple effects of our campaign are felt nationally

This movement has implications far beyond Iowa. The 2020 caucus provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to highlight the impacts of industrial agriculture — contaminated drinking water, hollowed out rural communities, the number of family-scale farms in freefall. Eight Democratic presidential candidates publicly supported a factory farm moratorium after seeing firsthand what corporate agriculture has done to Iowa and after hearing from people who live in factory farm-impacted communities across the state. Following the caucus, Senator Cory Booker introduced the Farm System Reform Act which was later introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna in the House of Representatives. This visionary legislation proposes to completely overhaul our farm system and ban new large factory farms after 2040. In addition to building the national movement to rein in factory farms, the FSRA has also ignited a series of state and local efforts, with moratoria bills now introduced in several states and local officials considering what they can do to stop the spread of factory farms. Without this work in Iowa, the national call to stop factory farming would still be a whisper.

In 2018, when factory farm moratorium legislation was first introduced at the Capitol, 10 Representatives and 1 Senator co-sponsored the bills. Most legislators wouldn’t even dare discuss a moratorium at that time. Our opponents didn’t even bother to comment on the bills because they thought the idea was too outlandish to ever get off the ground. But things have changed. The number of co-sponsors has now more than doubled with several members of the Democratic leadership co-sponsoring or expressing support for the legislation, and even some Republicans have been interested in meeting with us and with constituents to discuss the bills.  And in response to this rising power, House Speaker Grassley and powerful industry groups like the Iowa Pork Producers are promoting their false narratives about a moratorium in the media  — we’ve clearly caught their attention. ButIowans aren’t falling for it. Not when we can see the increasing number — now 774 — of water impairments across our state or the 40% of farm workers who have lost their jobs over the past two decades. Not as our rural communities are struggling to survive and the impacts of the climate crisis continue to compound. People are increasingly aware that our state, our communities, and our people cannot thrive alongside this system of corporate agriculture.

Iowans want a food and farm system that works for us, not against us. While our current elected officials may kneel to the factory farm industry, the people of Iowa are fighting back — and fighting for our right to clean water, for a system of agriculture that empowers independent farmers and builds resiliency in our rural communities, and for our interests to be put before the profits of multi-billion dollar agribusinesses. Our bills may not have advanced during this legislative session, but it’s coming. Iowa is a critical policy forum in which to advance this work, and we’re building an incredibly powerful movement in Iowa and beyond. There is nothing the barons of Big Ag can do to stop us.

Add your name now to stop factory farms.