Farmers fear fallout from film, activists

January 6, 2010, DES MOINES REGISTER

Activists and artists are drawing attention to agricultural practices they say harm animals and the environment. Farmers worry that the notoriety will lead to new regulations and costs. 
Two examples this week illustrated the conflict: 
– A film that will be screened Thursday night in Des Moines shows how the runoff of chemicals from Iowa cornfields creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

– The Iowa Cattlemen’s Association’s annual meeting Tuesday in Ames turned into a pep rally against what the group says is an effort by animal rights activists to run livestock agriculture out of business. 
"Don’t confuse animal welfare with animal abuse," said Dan Thomson, a professor of veterinary medicine at Kansas State University and an Iowa native. 
"These people aren’t interested in animal abuse," said Thomson. "They’re interested in ending animal agriculture."

Thomson said activist groups, notably the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, "play emotionally on the bond between humans and animals." 
The Humane Society has worked to restrict the ways farmers treat hogs and poultry. Its impact in Congress has been limited, but it has had some success in passing initiatives in California and other states where farm interests have less political influence than they do in the nation’s capital.

Under President Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society forced the closing of a California slaughterhouse that was caught on video abusing cattle, an embarrassing episode for both the meat industry and federal regulators. 
Both Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Ia., and Rep. Steve King, R-Ia., spoke out against the Humane Society’s agenda. 
"Wayne Pacelle continues to challenge us, and he has friends in the big cities," Boswell said. "They seem to be influenced by the idea that farmers are doing something bad to animals."

Emmet County livestock producer Bob Ness said: "I really get angry when I hear the animal rights people go after agriculture. They don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s not in our interest to mistreat animals." 
Pacelle said agribusiness is paranoid about the work of his and other animal rights organizations. 
"We represent the mainstream of American thought on the subject of treatment of animals," Pacelle said. "Most of our members are not vegetarians, and we are not out to drive livestock agriculture out of business."

The film, called "Big River," is the work of two college buddies, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who came to Iowa in 2004 to grow an acre of corn and produce a documentary, "King Corn," that linked the crop to the nation’s obesity problem. 
"When we left Iowa, we realized we had only told half the story of our acre of corn," Ellis said. 
The grain they harvested near Greene, he said, "was in many ways less valuable than what was coming off that same acre of land in terms of topsoil and less important than what was coming off the field in terms of polluted water."

Using flashbacks, they recall the herbicides and fertilizer they applied to that plot. They set off downstream to see what happens after chemicals run off the fields. Along the way, the filmmakers stop at a nitrate-removal plant in Des Moines that cleans the water for drinking. At the Gulf, a shrimper tells them that pollution from Iowa cornfields is partly to blame for reducing his catch. 
"The reality is that most Americans have very little understanding of the ecological footprint of agriculture," Ellis said.

Richard Cruse, an Iowa State University agronomist, says in the film that "farmers are not bad people." They are responding to economic signals when they apply herbicides and fertilizer to their fields and will continue to do so as long as they can make money doing it, he says. 
How should Iowans feel about this criticism of their state’s most famous product? 
Farming is better for the environment and human health than it used to be – pesticides are safer and rates of soil erosion are down – but "that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do better," ISU’s Cruse said.