Now that I have your attention….
An article was posted today in the Iowa Daily Democrat and it perfectly illustrated the role of government in our society. The subject was the application of manure from large animal confinement feeding operations.
Current state laws are weak with regard to animal waste and with relatively few inspectors we have “compromised Iowa’s water quality and endanger our citizens’ health,” according to the non-partisan Iowa Policy Project. There are laws on the books that put restrictions on confinement animal feeding operations, but the report argues that those restrictions have too many exceptions.
“Iowa’s numerous exemptions add to the degree of vagueness and complexity, making it rife for potential abuse or honest mistakes,” the report continued. “Iowa also does not compare well to other states in staff to enforce rules and regulations.”
Not long ago individual farmers raised small herds of hogs to supplement their income, but all that has changed as America’s appetite for pork has increased and so has Iowa’s production. Today Iowa is the nation’s top producer of pork and livestock is central to Iowa’s agricultural economy. The new paradigm for production and profit in the Iowa pork industry has created huge hog confinement facilities where thousands of hogs are raised under one (giant) roof and hog producers can see big profits from that scaled model.
(Note: This is not an article about the ethical questions surrounding animal confinement or consumption, it is about Iowa’s economy and community health concerns from the existing industry)
Commensurate, however, to growing profits, is a growing load of….crap.
The manure generated from those facilities is enormous. Manure, it must be noted, is valuable as a cheap and sustainable resource to enhance crop production and so the incentive exists for producers to keep manure from runoff that pollutes our lakes, creeks and rivers. But even when liquified into separate lagoons, the liquid masses have become so large that one could surf the waves (only a slight exaggeration).
As so the question becomes: How do we dispose of and use that waste in compliance with the public health, while allowing farmers to maintain profitable margins?
Farming, like any industry, is going to maximize margins as much as existing regulations will allow. That’s not evil, that’s not dishonest; it is simply making the most of what the system will allow. Government’s role is to protect the public’s interests and health, but also to allow for free enterprise to prosper. Good government finds a balance between these priorities, but tilts slightly toward the interests of public health. It cannot be the other way around and still be a representative democracy.
In this case, there is a verifiable threat to public health (and anyone living in Iowa understands the pervasive qualities of hog manure). Regulations currently exist, but they do not reflect the realities of the newer paradigm of hog production.
New regulations cost something. They almost always do, as they must be enforced, and they can change the profit parameters. We cannot strangle the productivity or discourage profitability, but neither can we afford to compromise water or land quality and jeopardize the public health.
To maximize the benefits of manure for farmers, to protect the environment and for the health of the communities downstream, Iowa must regulate how we allow manure to be absorbed on every level; from individual farms to giant corporate facilities.
Can cleaner, healthier standards be self-enforced with incentives? To some degree, yes, but if such autonomy were authentically embraced, we would already have seen voluntary expansion and compliance of existing regulations, rather than a consistent pressing of those parameters. The contamination of drinking water and the creation of hypoxia, causing ecological and economic harm, has increased.
That is where representative democracy steps in.
I don’t like big government and I look at any new regulation with skepticism first. I consider economic, ecological, and health values, and also what and how compliances should be implemented. Can it be private, or must it be public?