Conventional vs. Organic: An Ag Secretary Race to Watch


Confined animal feeding operations are common in Iowa, and are controversial for polluting local water supplies and allegedly helping raise "superbugs," pathogens like MRSA that are resistant to antibiotics. They are also notorious for keeping animals and their manure in tightly confined spaces—which can contribute to outbreaks of disease in both animals and humans. But a less-cited problem with CAFOs is that they make life miserable for rural individuals who have long lived in their shadow—and who have never had a say over where the facilities would be built, or how many.

"After the egg recall disaster, after the damage hog confinement has done to so many communities, people in Iowa have more complicated feelings about agribusiness than many Americans assume," Pollan told me. "They want to see concentrated agribusiness power broken up, and to regain some local say in where new animal factories are located." When I went to Clarion, Iowa, to report on August's egg recall, I found the same situation: residents who lived within a mile of the offending facilities were powerless to control the massive fly and odor problems that had developed since the CAFOs were built. Their homes have lost their value, their quality of life has been ruined, and they are stuck.

Thicke has come out in strong support of local regulations targeting CAFOs. "I want to help restore to local county governments the authority to have some say in where these CAFOs are sited," he told me. "And we need to look at how we can go further to protect rural residences—increasing the separation distances of new CAFOs from rural residences and communities, to get more protection for people out in the countryside."

In a debate with Northey this fall, Thicke made similar promises, to audience applause, saying, "It's just plain democracy." He also advocated taking animals out of confinement and "integrating them into the landscape in ways that are ecologically sound." In response, Northey disagreed, saying he is in favor of single statewide laws for CAFO zoning management. "I think it's important to protect neighbors, all across the state, with the same set of rules," he said. "A statewide system. I believe, without that would have real trouble siting new facilities out there." In other words, local control would make it more difficult for big producers to site, or build, new CAFOs. In this regard, Northey's sympathies appear to be with Big-Ag producers.

NEXT: Where the Race Stands

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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