The Great Pig Debate: How CAFOs Stalk the Future President

By Dave Murphy
Image: Rows of long, windowless buildings, each holding 2,000 to 3,000 pigs, can be seen among the cornfields of Iowa countryside. Inside these confinement facilities, the crowded animals barely have room to move.Dave Murphy is a sixth generation Iowan and an advocate for sustainable agriculture. When not roaming the Iowa countryside, he spends his time in Okoboji and Des Moines. Photo to right: Rows of long, windowless buildings, each holding 2,000 to 3,000 pigs, can be seen among the cornfields of Iowa countryside. Inside these confinement facilities, the crowded animals barely have room to move.

Nixon would have thought it undignified. Agnew, a former Baltimore County executive, would have had it down pat, but Truman, a simple farm boy, got it right.

Presidents and presidential candidates have been traveling through Iowa for the past three decades, attempting to court the native vote and win trust by showing an understanding of all things Iowan. One of those, the almighty hog, happens to not only be a chief Iowa export, but also the source of its leading political controversy.

What was once told by President Harry Truman as an idle joke during the Iowa plowmen's competition in 1948, exactly 60 years ago, now seems like sage advice.

"No man should be allowed President who does not understand hogs, or hasn't been around a manure pile," said the son of a farmer and livestock dealer, two-term Missouri Senator and 33rd President of the United States.

And coming through Iowa on the way to the White House has given plenty of candidates that opportunity in the past four races for the nation's top office.


While corn is still king as a commodity crop in Iowa, especially since the rise of ethanol, hogs—specifically hog confinement facilities—are the reigning political issue for rural voters in this Midwestern state. Known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), hog confinement is an issue that has plagued the Iowa political scene for over the past 15 years. And with each presidential election cycle, a whole new round of national candidates and their staffs are exposed to one of the hottest and most contentious issues in Iowa politics.

Years of mounting and conclusive evidence has shown that industrial animal confinement has caused serious air and water pollution, killed millions of fish across the nation, helped push small family farmers out of the business of tending livestock, harmed the health and economic wellbeing of neighbors and nearby communities, and posed the threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Unfortunately, politicians in the state of Iowa have largely taken a pass at creating meaningful legislation that seriously addresses the real economic, environmental and public health threats that factory farms pose to their constituents.

As a result, Iowans have taken to stalking presidential candidates for their position on this important local issue, asking their positions on hog confinement at town hall meetings, pressing staff members for their candidate's stance, and hoping that a strong voice from the national level would actually stiffen the spines of Iowa's elected officials.

Up to this point, however, Iowans remain disappointed.


Despite a number of prominent national politicians tromping through the state, professing outrage over the environmental degradation and lack of a democratic solution, both parties remain stalemated over a simple resolution. A solution proposed by the majority of Iowa's environmental, family farm and social justice groups is known as "local control." Local elected officials, namely the county board of supervisors, would have a say (or veto power) over where new confinements would be built within their boundaries, according to a set of determined criteria, i.e., proximity to wetlands, major water source, homes, schools, or the possibility of decreasing community economic development. Sixty-four percent of Iowans agree with local control, according to a 2007 poll by the Des Moines Register.

However, the state's leading lobby groups, led by the Des Moines-based Farm Bureau insurance company, the Iowa Pork Producers, and an industry front known as the Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers, have succeeded in stopping legislation with a series of well-timed political contributions, threats of running opponents against local control supporters, and millions of dollars poured into PR and lobbying efforts that stifle any true reform of the state's laws.

Prior to the 2006 election, the issue of hog confinement and local control had typically played down party lines. In 1995, Iowans had lost local control, when Iowa House of Representatives File 519 was passed by a Republican-led House and signed into law by Republican Governor Terry Branstad.

Since then, Democrats in rural areas have run on the promises of local control. When Democrats won the House, Senate and Governorship in the 2006 election, something not done in Iowa in over 40 years, Iowans thought they had finally found relief. Sadly, Democratic leadership has fallen victim to the same lobbying tactics used by the Republicans they replaced—and Governor Culver, who ran on local control during the election, remained largely mum on the issue during his first year.

While it may seem odd to outsiders that hogs are such a heated issue, Iowa's history as the leading producer of hogs (slaughtering roughly 32.9 million in 2006 alone) and a change in production methods over the last 30 years has created a collision course at the intersection of agriculture, the environment, economics, public health and politics.

With that many hogs in Iowa, a state with a population of 2.9 million, there are over 11.3 pigs per person and over 5,000 hog confinement facilities distributed unevenly around the state. When one learns that hogs can create up to four times as much waste as humans, there is an understanding behind the growing concern over Iowa's hog waste problem. A recent article in The New York Times calculated that hogs in Iowa produce over 50 million tons of raw waste annually, or 16.7 tons of manure per Iowan. This is equivalent to every person in the state having 11.4 Toyota Priuses stacked on their front lawns. By concentrating more hogs in smaller and smaller areas, the CAFO industry has succeeded in creating an industrial stench and pollution problem that has outraged Iowa's normally pleasant citizenry.

For over 100 years, Iowa has been the nation's leading supplier of ham, bacon and ribs. With its rich topsoil and abundance of corn, from the time before the Civil War until just after Vietnam, pigs were raised in what is now called "the old fashioned way," roaming freely on pastures or temporarily housed in barns during inclement weather—acting as nature intended pigs to act.

In the 1970s, however, the rise of enclosed buildings with crowded stalls, slatted concrete floors, and massive open cesspools of feces and urine began to steadily outpace the old method of raising hogs. Today, one can drive across the entire state on back roads without seeing a single pig, something Iowa's ancestors would have thought virtually impossible.

In place of the old pigpen, "modern" confinement systems raise hogs using industrial feeding formulas, genetic standardization, and millions of tons of antibiotics. For rural Iowans and those driving through the state, this has meant getting used to a gag-inducing stench as they drive down its roads and highways.

For politicians, it has meant dealing with an ever-increasing vocal population that has become tired of Iowa's political class dragging its feet on what is seen as an issue of environmental concern, economic justice, democratic fairness, and growing public health concerns.


Like clockwork, every four years, Iowans become tired of their voices not being heard by local politicians and try to bend the ear of someone who could, in very short order, become the most powerful person in the nation.

In 1996, former Nixon speechwriter and longtime political columnist Pat Buchanan found religion on the hog issue and was considered "a defender of small farmers against hog confinement units." In 1998, when asked what he would do to solve the problem, then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani artfully dodged the question on his second trip through the state, saying, "It's something that I would have to spend a lot of time looking at and studying."

By 1999, then-Vice President Al Gore promised to create "national standards" for industrial animal confinements and took to listening seriously to the concerns of sustainable farm advocates if elected President. However, challenger and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley countered Gore by saying he had failed to do enough to help family farmers during the Clinton Administration. Bradley himself promised to reduce concentration in the meatpacking and hog confinement industries.

During the 2004 election cycle, rural advocates took a host of Democratic candidates, including Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and John Kerry, on "CAFO tours" during their separate visits. When the convoy of trucks and SUVs stopped near a bin of dead hogs rotting in the hot summer sun and its doors were opened, several of the candidates, their staff and press members nearly vomited from the stench. Kucinich's clothes smelled so horrible afterward that he had to change his suit before attending his next political event.

That same year, Democratic candidate and Missouri Representative Dick Gephardt included the hog confinement issue in a television ad, saying, "I've always opposed corporate hog lots and supported a ban on packer ownership of cattle… As president, I'll fight for America's family farmers."


The 2008 election cycle has not been any different than its predecessors, with plenty of conversations taking place on the hog issue by out-of-state politicians. Just as in past elections, all Democratic candidates—including Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Kucinich and Obama—came out in favor of local control. Democrats are doing most of the talking regarding concerns over the environment and the plight of the family farmer. Republicans, on the other hand, have kept their focus on the war, immigration and that eternal pig-in-a-poke: taxes. Of those Democratic candidates remaining in the field, their positions and past deeds are summarized below.

Starts early, finishes last

As a native of Illinois, former First Lady of Arkansas, and current New York Senator, there is no doubt that Hillary Clinton has a solid understanding of agricultural issues, as well as the threat industrial hog confinement poses to the environment, rural communities and small family farmers.
Having had a good voting record on agricultural issues as a New York Senator, Clinton came to the confinement issue with a bit of a mixed political history. Executives from Tyson Foods, the world's largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork, contributed heavily to her husband's gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. She also had her own connection to Tyson through a $100,000 commodity trade on cattle futures, with a Tyson lawyer acting as her commodities broker—a fact that worried some environmental activists from the start.

When Clinton showed up to the Iowa State Fair and donned an apron while flipping pork chops at the Iowa Pork Producers' tent, attempting to win a place in the conservative hearts of the state's 8,700 pork producers, it rankled the ire of rural activists even further.

Iowa's dedicated rural base was further irritated in the weeks before the January 3 caucuses when Clinton appointed Joy Philippi, a recent former head of the National Pork Producers Council who is seen as a cheerleader for corporate agriculture, as co-chair of "Rural Americans for Hillary."

Two days after that debacle, Clinton finally came out in favor of local control over CAFO-siting decisions in an interview with the Des Moines Register, saying she believes large livestock operations can be hazardous to public health and the environment. "This is an issue I care deeply about," she said, describing her feelings as "long-standing" and saying the topic had not been one that Iowans had mentioned during her many visits.

While many Iowans were glad to hear Clinton had come out in favor of local control, few believed it was a topic that was never mentioned to her, especially since her campaign had issued a policy brief in October that said, "In order to protect our health, particularly children's health, the environment, and the livelihood of small farmers, Hillary is deeply concerned about hog lots…[s]he also strongly supports federal rules to control air and water pollution from corporate factory farms."

Clinton has also been fortunate enough to garner the support of Bobby Kennedy Jr., a stalwart environmental defender and a champion on the CAFO issue. But even with the Kennedy blessing, Iowa's rural voters were too skittish to throw their support behind a worthy candidate whose campaign could not quite get their message on CAFOs straight.

Starts behind, finishes strong

John Edwards, former Senator of North Carolina—the nation's second leading hog producing state—knew a thing or two about CAFOs before coming to Iowa. In fact, much of his second campaign through the state hinged on his populist rhetoric and his promise to take on "corporate interests," especially those of industrial hog confinement. This gained him a loyal following of rural Democrats, family farmers and environmentalists demanding change.

Edwards' commitment to the issue went so far that his campaigners even took to handing out bumper stickers that said "Hogs for Edwards" and walked in a parade to the Iowa State Fair grounds with a trailer full of hogs and a banner that read, "Be Kind to Swine."

Of all the candidates, Edwards has proposed the most progressive solution to the CAFO issue. If elected, he pledges to impose a moratorium on the construction of any new confinement facilities.Image: Of all the candidates, Edwards has proposed the most progressive solution to the CAFO issue. If elected, he pledges to impose a moratorium on the construction of any new confinement facilities.

In addition, Edwards promised strict enforcement of anti-monopoly laws, especially those aimed at mergers of packinghouses and unfair price discrimination against independent hog producers.

The problem with Edwards' promises is that they stand in stark contrast to his voting record in the US Senate. He twice voted against a ban on packer ownership of livestock. Edwards also voted against an amendment by Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone to eliminate subsidies to giant hog confinements, as well as a bill to eliminate caps on subsidies for confinement operators. Despite this terrible voting record, Iowa voters appreciated Edwards' admission of past mistakes and the newfound conviction he showed in addressing the issue.

From nowhere to the top of his class

Walking into Iowa from the Land of Lincoln, Senator Barack Obama faced an uncertain future in his neighboring state, as Iowans are more likely to be skeptical of the folks who live across the river. Despite having been born in Hawaii and serving as an urban State Senator from Chicago, the relative national politics newcomer quickly proved to be a deft study on agricultural issues.

While Obama had taken some Illinois State Senate votes regarding confinement, including supporting legislation that set tougher pollution limits on nitrogen, phosphorous, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, his true education on confinement came from the nearly 50 rural town hall meetings that his campaign held in Iowa over the summer and fall months. Obama and his staff got together and listened to the concerns of family farmers from all around the state.

The CAFO problem in Iowa is one that Obama thinks needs action. After meeting with farm and environmental leaders, he came out in favor of local control and called for the strict enforcement of the Clean Air Act and Superfund "in exchange for simply reporting air emissions." Obama also supports limiting the amount of subsidies that industrial CAFOs receive and believes that large corporate hog polluters should be required to pay for their own pollution—and not be bailed out at the taxpayer's expense. These policies helped him secure his historic victory on that cold night in January.


There is little doubt that the candidates' respective journeys through Iowa may finally deliver us a leader who has gained the wisdom to live up to Harry Truman's maxim on hogs. If so, on that first day after taking the oath of office, the next President of the United States may think twice before eating a piece of bacon inside the White House kitchen. And hopefully during these intervening months, Iowans will finally convince their local politicians to act wisely on this issue as well.

Rows of long, windowless buildings, each holding 2,000 to 3,000 pigs, can be seen among the cornfields of the Iowa countryside. Inside these confinement facilities, the crowded animals barely have room to move.

Share This!