A vulnerable food supply – Patti Naylor

The coronavirus pandemic that we face today will impact our lives in many ways, both in the near term and for years to come. A bright spot may be a change in how we look at the world and how agriculture fits into that world.

News headlines from Iowa and the Midwest tell us some of those impacts and expose the vulnerabilities of a food supply chain that accepts the treatment of people and animals as cogs in a factory production system.

Meat processing plants that were once unionized and provided a middle class income to the benefit of whole communities are now fewer and much larger facilities with thousands of employees working closely together in hazardous conditions. It was entirely predictable that these employees, many of them immigrants, would count as some of the largest numbers of COVID-19 infections.

Pigs in confinements that house thousands of animals have no place to go to be processed. With more pigs constantly being born in a continuous stream of animals, some market-weight pigs are being euthanized while a few pigs are being offered for sale to neighbors for as little as $20 per head. Farmers are seeing prices for their grain and livestock plummeting, which adds to the financial and mental stress that years of already low prices have caused. Consumers are being warned of shortages of meat in the grocery stores although these warnings are intended to garner sympathy for the corporations that actually own the pigs and are responsible for creating this unethical mess.

This system is claimed to be efficient and safe, using technological advances that will keep it all running smoothly. Until something causes a break in that system.

Clearly, the time has come to change this system. We can start by implementing a halt to any new or expanding hog confinements in Iowa and in Greene County. Such a moratorium would give us time to re-evaluate our needs, realign our priorities, and re-envision what Iowa’s and the world’s agricultural community can and should look like.

The possibilities of a new kind of agriculture are already emerging, one which relies on community and recognizes the dignity of those who produce our food. Farmers who have pasture-based and outdoor-raised animals for direct-marketing are experiencing high demand for their meat. Small meat processing facilities – the few that still exist – are booked solid, working to process as much as they can. Farmers with eggs, dairy, and vegetables are also seeing more consumers seeking out locally-grown products through online marketing and virtual farmers markets. Even seed companies are out-of-stock of many items as more and more people realize that growing their own food is a wise option.

As we look to the future beyond today’s stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements, let’s not waste the opportunity to address how and where our food is produced. A moratorium on more hog confinements is a beginning but to support all the people involved in bringing food to our tables, we need to go far beyond this one issue and organize around policies that truly change this vulnerable system.

Final note: Public hearings regarding two proposed hog confinements are scheduled for 9 and 9:30 am on Monday, May 11, with Greene County supervisors. The public can comment through online participation.

Patti Naylor, Highland Township

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