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Who Decides How Your Meat is Raised?

Way back when in 2018, in that quaint time before the world seemed to get oh-so-much-more complicated, I lived in California. I was there for twelve years, which meant more than six election cycles In California, a state where voting is no joke. It is serious work to head to the polls, not only because there are important government positions up for grabs, but because there are all kinds of Propositions on which to vote. Each election cycle, a 100-page+ booklet arrives at the doorstep describing the pros and cons of each Proposition, which groups are for it and against it, and who has written and paid for the arguments printed within.

An example of the voter booklet, circa 2020

There, among the countless propositions that were brought forth to voters while I lived in California, was Proposition 12, The Farm Animal Confinement Initiative. I voted for it, along with 7,551,434 other people in the state, almost 63% of voters. Seven and a half million people—two and a half times the entire population of Iowa—voted as I did, requiring that the pork, veal, chicken, and eggs sold (not just raised) in California had to meet minimum standards for the amount of space animals are given to live.

The Proposition passed, and, as one might imagine, some groups were not thrilled. It would hurt farmers in other states, cried the American Farm Bureau and National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), and possibly result in more expensive meat and eggs, making it harder for those with lower incomes to buy such proteins. And why should voters in California dictate the growing practices of farms in faraway states, like Iowa? They complained. It is a consumer’s right to choose pork that is less expensive and raised in a confinement unit if they want to, the groups argued, even if 63% of them in the state of California already chose against it.

The debate over Prop 12 has now made its way all the way to the Supreme Court. And now the US Government—with President Biden at its helm—has joined the American Farm Bureau and the NPPC in arguing against Prop 12, saying that “voters in pork-producing states must determine what constitutes "cruel" treatment of animals housed in those states — not voters in California” according to The National Pork Producers Council “praised the Biden Administration for standing up for consumer choice and American farmers in a release on June 21.”

As usual, at issue is a lot of money. As of On March 1, 2021, there were 23.8 million hogs and pigs on Iowa farms, the vast majority of which lived in about 4000 confinement units peppered throughout the state.

A map of hog confinement units in Iowa. Swine facilities are in red. From

To be clear, it is not “Big Ag” (a term I hate - let’s talk about specific companies and practices, like JBS or Smithfield, for example) that owns or runs most hog confinement units in Iowa. It is most often a family who already grows enough corn and beans to feed the hogs cheaply and has land on which to spread the heaps of manure, that puts up a hog building.

Families want to bring a child back onto the farm to work, but there is not enough income for another farmer on the same land. A hog building can be put up on a small amount of ground with a loan from the bank, and a contract to raise hogs easily procured with one of the pork companies in Iowa who in effect guarantee they will take the animals when they come to weight.

“The odd thing in my mind with this whole process is that you basically borrow $700,000 to buy yourself an income, and you really don’t make that much,” Leslie Miller, a former banker in Knoxville, Iowa, and a woman who worked in agricultural lending since 1976 told me when I interviewed her in 2020 for my book Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America. According to the Cactus Family Farms website in 2020—one of the huge pork producers in the state that contract with farmers to raise hogs—a hog building would yield a family a “potential additional on-farm income [of] over $20,000 a year” for a job that is essentially 24/7 and smells like hell.

It is a system that works well for the companies—they get pork at prices that make them record profits year after year—but also for many farms, who find hog units a way to ensure a stable income.

But the public is less enthusiastic about the facilities, and I for one am constantly worried one will go up next door to our farm. A poll by the John Hopkins Center for Livable Future found that a majority of Americans (57%) support greater oversight of existing industrial animal farms, and 8 out of 10 respondents were concerned about air and water pollution, worker safety, and health problems created by confinement units. Many towns have also tried to fight the arrival of hog facilities, to no avail.

John with our cattle. The animals live on pasture their entire lives, unlike the majority of cattle sold in America which are “finished” in confinement feedlots.

Contrary to the Biden Administration’s Amicus Brief on the new Supreme Court Case stating that “voters in pork-producing states must determine what constitutes "cruel" treatment of animals housed in those states — not voters in California” people in Iowa have been left with few choices in battling hog confinement for any reason, even when it is taking place in their own backyards. In Iowa, the state Supreme Court this summer decided that even neighbors don’t have a say when a facility directly impacts them. The court ruled that neighbors cannot sue for damages to water and air quality because of a nearby hog facility. According to the Associated Press:

Justice Thomas Waterman wrote in the Thursday decision that “protecting and promoting livestock production is a legitimate state interest, and granting partial immunity from nuisance suits is a proper means to that end.”

In other words, the right to make money by raising hogs (however little that is) is more important than maintaining the value of property—or the ability to breathe outside of your own home—in Iowa. Hog facilities with less than 2500 hogs are also mostly unregulated and can go up virtually anywhere, making it even less possible to safeguard the investment of a home and the health of your family.

So who exactly has the right to choose how our food is raised? Should a community be able to regulate its own air and water? And perhaps most importantly, should we be able to decide what we put into our own bodies?

As the dissenting opinion by Justices Brent Appel and Christopher McDonald in the Iowa Supreme Court case pointed out (and the AP reported), at its core, this is not just an issue of money. It is a question of our constitutional rights:

“Are we telling the existing property owners that they are required to ‘take one for the team’….
“In the end, the legal question presented in this case is a simple one: does the constitution mean what it says? Do the men and women of this state have the constitutional right to protect their property? The text of the constitution, precedent, and history say yes. The majority says no,” he wrote.

I will suggest one full-proof way for the public to stop the increase in confinement units across the US—stop eating meat or don't purchase it from the grocery store. If there is one item in your kitchen you should care about where and how it is grown—make it meat. Take the time to find a farmer near you who raises animals the way you and your community want them raised: on pasture, as nature intended.

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