We’re Living Downstream from Someone Else

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2008. Iowa City Press-Citizen (August 6): 15A.

Just a few days ago, two economic development officials from the U. S. Department of Commerce toured Cedar Rapids and urged local leaders to work with their counterparts in the I-380 Corridor to plan and rebuild as a region. “Whatever economic development plans you had on your shelves are literally washed away,” Assistant Secretary of Commerce Sandy Baruah told local leaders. “If you come up with this big regional approach, we will help you.”

Secretary Baruah is right to encourage regional thinking. But if the flood has taught us anything, it should have taught us that we live in an interconnected region, and hence that it would be short-sighted to limit our regional vision to economic development alone. What we need instead is to collaboratively invent and live an energizing myth that enables us to transform our region into a much healthier place economically, socially, and environmentally. At the heart of such a story would be the core metaphor that all of us are – as Sandra Steingraber says in her book of the same name – “living downstream” from someone else.

A transformative regional story based on “living downstream” might start with the observation that the natural landscape and ecosystems of eastern Iowa have been transformed quite dramatically over the past 170 years. Instead of living within a tall grass prairie ecosystem that absorbed rainfall and limited erosion, we are instead living amidst fields of industrialized farms that produce chemically-dependent corn and soybean for cows and pigs. While producing agricultural products that we who live in cities demand, these farms exacerbate erosion and the runoff of precipitation, increase our dependence on risky imported oil, and both affect and are affected by global climate change.

A transformative story would next observe that large numbers of those cows and pigs are fattened for slaughter at Concentrated Agricultural Feeding Operations (CAFO’s). Nationwide, the 110 largest hog operations, each of which contains over 50,000 hogs, now constitute 55 percent of the total national inventory. Iowa leads the nation in hog production, much of which takes place in the state’s 742 hog-producing CAFOs. These CAFOs are most densely concentrated in Hardin, Franklin, and other counties in the upper reaches of the Iowa and Cedar Rivers, with their wastes flowing downstream.

This concentration of animals into fewer but larger operations has increased the risk of antibiotic-resistant diseases being communicated across species. As experts attending a March 2004 conference at the University of Iowa warned, the practice of co-locating swine and poultry facilities raises “the specter of a global pandemic arising from new strains of avian influenza incubated in swine and transmitted to humans.”

Third, a new story for our region would note that the Iowa and Cedar River Valleys have a substantial number of large meat processing plants, including ones in Columbus Junction, Marshalltown, and Waterloo. As recent events at Agriprocessors, Inc., in Postville reveal, these plants require employees to do hazardous and distasteful work that most of us Iowans will not do. (In fact, employees at meat packing plants and CAFOs face a higher risk of infection because they work so closely with animals and feed.) Because the rest of us won’t do this work, but demand the meat in the marketplace, the meat processing companies hire new residents from Mexico and other Central American countries, and then use those workers’ fear of being caught outside the law to exploit them on the plant floor.

And fourth, a transformative story for our region would recognize that the incidence of obesity and heart disease among us humans has reached near-epidemic proportions. While the increases in obesity and heart disease cannot be solely attributed to the fact that we collectively eat vast amounts of corn-fed meat and poultry and other corn-based products, especially in fast-food restaurants, the evidence does seem clear that we could improve the health of our land, water, and selves by shifting the farm economy away from corn and soybean for cows and pigs and – as Michael Pollan has argued so skillfully in The Omnivore’s Dilemma – toward more diversified “grass farms,” and by shifting our own diets away from meat and more toward fruits and vegetables.

Yes, we need a big new regional vision for the Iowa/Cedar River watershed, but it should be a vision that enables those of us who farm and those of us who consume what farmers produce to do so in a manner that is less destructive to our land, our water, and our selves.

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