Iowa Factory Farms Are Supercharging the Climate Crisis

From pollution to climate emissions, new research details how factory farms are failing Iowa. Industry “fixes” will only dig a deeper hole.

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Food SystemClimate and Energy

by John Aspray

Climate chaos has arrived in Iowa, and factory farms are only making it worse. 

The scope and speed of that climate chaos is growing fast. And new research from Food & Water Watch shows that to avoid the worst of it, we need to completely change how we raise livestock.

Iowa’s Factory Farms Drive Climate Change With Huge Emissions

By design, factory farms require emissions-intensive corn and soy feedstock production. They also produce, concentrate, and store massive amounts of methane-rich manure. 

With more factory farms than any other state, Iowa’s agricultural climate footprint is enormous:

  • Factory farms drive Iowa’s climate pollution: Agriculture contributes a whopping 38% of Iowa’s greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also the highest emitter for potent greenhouse gasses methane and nitrous oxide, contributing 78% and 94% of statewide emissions, respectively.
  • Factory farm emissions are rising: Iowa’s agricultural emissions increased 20% from 2000 to 2020. From 1990 to 2019, emissions from manure management alone increased 53%.

Climate Change Threatens Lives and Livelihoods in Iowa

Factory farm-driven climate chaos has already arrived in Iowa. However, there are plenty more changes to come if we don’t act fast. 

Thanks to climate change, the Midwest can expect daily temperatures to rise 10°F by 2100. That means more extreme heat in the summer — especially dangerous for children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing health conditions. 

Moreover, higher temperatures and drier weather will lower corn/maize yields globally, threatening Iowa farmers’ way of life. One study predicts the Midwest won’t be suitable for growing corn by 2100. Meanwhile, more livestock will die from heat stress, especially those kept in confinement on factory farms. 

That’s all on top of extreme weather events. The 2020 derecho, for example, damaged 43% of the state’s corn and soybeans crops. 

Climate change will have huge impacts on state and national food systems, as Iowa ranks first and second in the country for corn and soybean acreage, respectively. But Big Ag is using the threat of climate change to justify one new boondoggle after another.

Iowa’s Biogas Scam Will Double Down on Climate Pollution

One of industry’s favorite “fixes” to their climate problem is factory farm gas, also known as “biogas.” Made from manure processed in anaerobic digesters, the gas consists mostly of methane. In fact, it’s chemically identical to climate-wrecking fracked gas.

Proponents claim that digesters — running on taxpayer dollars — keep methane from manure out of the atmosphere. However, digesters merely extract gas from manure that’s already mishandled on factory farms. They’re also prone to leaking the very methane they claim to capture. When hogs and cattle are raised on pasture, instead of factory farms, cattle and hog waste produces less methane. 

The reality is, Iowa wouldn’t have this much manure or methane emissions if we didn’t have factory farms. Supporting biogas really just supports factory farms.

And that’s just what Iowa’s current policies do. For example, a 2021 law expanded digester use to large-scale factory farms. By December, nine large dairies received new permits for digesters. 

With more pro-biogas laws expected in upcoming legislative sessions, we need to spread the word about the biogas boondoggle, now. 

Carbon Capture Won’t Work in Iowa, or Anywhere

Iowa faces another false solution in carbon capture and storage. The technology aims (and has largely failed) to capture CO2 from industrial sources and pipe it into underground reservoirs. But it has cost taxpayers billions in subsidies, with nothing to show for it. 

Now, corporations are proposing three carbon pipelines across Iowa. Winding through private land, they’ll carry captured carbon from ethanol facilities and fertilizer plants. Far from a climate solution, the project will only entrench industrial agriculture and resource-intensive monocropping required for ethanol production.

Additionally, carbon pipelines are exceedingly dangerous. Explosions or leaks can release fatal amounts of concentrated CO2. In 2020, a carbon pipeline rupture in Satartia, MS showed that CO2 displaces oxygen in engines, stopping emergency vehicles in their tracks.

Like factory farm gas, carbon capture worsens the problem it claims to solve. For instance, it requires lots of power. A large-scale buildout could actually increase U.S. power plants’ consumption of coal and natural gas. 

Iowans know our backyards are no place for carbon capture. To date, 64% of Iowa’s impacted counties have filed objections to the pipelines, joining thousands of opposing public comments to the IUB. The Iowa legislature can and must stop the use of eminent domain for pipelines in 2023. 

To Stop Climate Change, Iowa Needs to Transform its Food System

We know that factory farming is a significant driver of climate change. To avoid a nightmare scenario, we must transform the way we grow food and stop incentivizing industry scams. 

We can start by banning new factory farms and helping farmers transition to more sustainable models. For example, in smaller-scale, integrated systems, farmers raise crops to feed their own livestock. They raise animals on pasture, generating fewer emissions, and use the manure to fertilize crops, reducing synthetic fertilizer use. 

To create a food system more climate resilient, less climate-wrecking, Food and Water Watch recommends:

  • The Iowa Legislature must pass a moratorium on new and expanding factory farms;
  • The Iowa Legislature and Governor must stop dangerous false solutions and industry scams like carbon capture pipelines and factory farm gas. State agencies like the Iowa Utilities Board and Department of Natural Resources must follow suit;
  • Congress must pass the Farm System Reform Act, allocating funds to transition to smaller, pasture-based farming systems. It must also pass the Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act, to end agribusiness mega-mergers;
  • Congress must eliminate public subsidies supporting carbon capture and storage development;
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must start regulating factory farm emissions under the Clean Air Act; and
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture must reject factory farm gas when funding climate-smart agricultural practices. 

We’re fighting here and now for a moratorium on factory farms in Iowa. As the 2023 legislative session brings new legislators to the Capitol, we need to show elected officials that Iowans demand a moratorium on factory farms.

Help us fight climate change! Sign our petition for a factory farm moratorium in Iowa.