In his Harper’s magazine story, “The Trouble with Iowa,” produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, Richard Manning paints a bleak picture of the modern interplay between politics, industrial agriculture, and environmental and social well being. The arena for this showdown is Iowa, the location of the imminent caucus, historically considered the first major electoral event of the nominating process for the next president of the United States. Manning begins by asserting that despite the growing belief that Iowa’s role in politics is overestimated, there might be no state more entrenched in the deep-rooted web of issues plaguing the nation which serve as fodder for current political debates.
Manning deftly weaves the plights of environmental degradation, obesity and oppressive labor conditions into a horror tour of industrial agriculture in America. The first stop is an inspection of the fertilizer runoff that renders the tap water in Iowa undrinkable. Next is a glance at soy which is grown extensively as a companion to corn and is replacing other energy sources in many processed foods. There is strong evidence that this trend is contributing to the rising obesity epidemic. This is followed by a glimpse into poultry and meat companies like Tyson who pay their workers through a competitive scheme, essentially giving them “serf” status. With each revelation Manning emphasizes that the issue is not that there is no answer. For example, if 40 percent of cropland claimed by corn were planted with other crops, the multitude of problems caused by industrial agriculture would begin to dissipate. But the ultimate obstacle is political, more specifically that politicians and political institutions are rendered entirely ineffective in the face of the invincible behemoth that is industrial agriculture.
Manning presents a compelling argument that when it comes to industrial agriculture, political integrity is essentially impossible. Politicians act under the pretense of catering to the people when in truth they are bound by the unrelenting chains of big ag. One of the starkest examples of this is the failed efforts of Tom Vilsack, agricultural secretary to president Obama. Vilsack was a supporter of reform and he used antitrust regulation to challenge the Tyson engineered tournament system. Tyson responded by joining with other meat producers to mount a multi million-dollar lobbying campaign essentially subduing Vilsack. Vilsack quickly backpedaled on the new rules and finally in 2011 Congress killed the reform. It is blatantly clear that private interests rule industrial agriculture, with legal consideration coming in at an almost imperceptible second. When faced with a federal mandate to regulate hog manure, Iowa governor Branstad cut the budget that paid for inspectors, and majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, urged states to violate regulations that would limit carbon emissions.
Manning concludes on a harrowing note. “We have a naïve sense that to correct the wrongs in our country we simply need to elect the right president, pass the right laws, and that’s that.” Democrat or Republican, it does not matter which set of ideals moves into the white house. Industrial agriculture does not need public backing or a majority of votes. It only needs to maintain the status quo, and despite the pomp and circumstance it demands, politics is powerless to change that.