Guest Commentary

Large-scale industrial farms are not a net gain for rural Missouri

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A battle is raging right now in the Missouri General Assembly. At first glance, it may appear not to matter to urban Kansas City, but nothing could be further from the truth.

All Missouri residents — whether urban or rural — have a stake in whether our food is grown in a way that is healthy and sustainable. Large-scale industrial factory farms — concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs — are not the way to build a healthy food supply for the long haul.

CAFOs are sold to rural communities as progress that will bring back jobs. We know that both rural and urban areas of our state desperately need quality new employment. But these low-wage, non-union factory farm jobs are not the solution. As Missouri chairs for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, we know about the low wages and inhumane working conditions associated with CAFOs. Too often, these jobs are endured by immigrants afraid to speak out.

This meets the very definition of “economic exploitation” that Martin Luther King Jr. was referring to when he launched the first Poor People’s Campaign over 50 years ago. Missouri family farmers have also paid the price with nine out of 10 of family farm hog producers pushed out of business since 1985.

Missouri’s current 2.8 million CAFO hogs produce as much untreated waste as 11.2 million people — nearly double the population of the state. The potential for environmental and health degradation should matter to every Missourian.

Iowa has 18 times more factory farm CAFO operations than Missouri. Let’s learn from the negative warning signs emerging from Iowa:

▪ With 630 polluted streams, the No. 1 cause of fish kills in Iowa is animal waste. Healthy waterways are one of Missouri’s strongest assets — a fact that should not be taken for granted.

▪ CAFOs’ potential harm through respiratory illness for their workers and neighbors cannot be ignored. For example, 20% of Iowa children who attend schools near

CAFOs have asthma, as compared to only 7% who attended schools at least 10 miles away.

▪ Antibiotic resistant bacteria can leak from swine waste lagoons, and Iowans living within one mile of a CAFO have been found to be three times more likely to carry antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Because of these documented public health risks, both the American Public Health Association and the Missouri Association of Osteopathic Physicians have called for a moratorium on the construction of new CAFOs. Missourians should heed their call.

The new Poor People’s Campaign was launched to reinvigorate Dr. King’s call to no longer be silent on issues of injustice. The Missouri campaign has learned from listening to the voices of the people closest to the injustice of CAFOs in rural Missouri. We learned from the rural communities who debated and voted to implement local county-based health ordinances to protect their residents from the negative consequences of factory farms.

The Missouri Poor People’s Campaign stands opposed to Missouri Senate Bill 391, and we invite all those opposed to injustice to stand with us. This bill would take away the rights of rural counties to establish or retain local control to regulate CAFOs. Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources has repeatedly demonstrated that its rules are too weak — or nonexistent — when it comes to protecting family farmers and rural communities, or the air and water quality we all depend upon from public health and environmental degradation threats posed by today’s factory farm CAFOs.

Let your state senator know that this issue matters to every Missourian.

Rodney E. Williams is tri-chair of the Missouri Poor People’s Campaign and president of the Kansas City branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He co-authored this with fellow tri-chair Carol Smith, board chair of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.