Senator Tom Coburn thought that he was being awfully clever earlier this week when he spoke about wasteful pork barrel spending in the Omnibus Appropriations Act, and cited, as an example, spending for a program to deal with pollution coming from pig farms in Iowa. Pork barrel spending on pigs… get it?
Senator Coburn complained,
“There is $1.719 million for pig odor and manure management in Ames, IA. That goes to Iowa State University. Pigs stink. We know why. We know where they live. So is that a priority for us right now?”
There is nothing wrong with asking this kind of question, of course. Senators and members of the House of Representatives ought to ask questions about spending. The problem is that Senator Coburn wasn’t really looking for information. He was asking a rhetorical question. He was trying to tell people how things are.
Senator Coburn was saying that he thinks that it’s a waste to spend money on the management of pig manure, because pigs are just smelly, and it’s dumb to try to change that. What Tom Coburn said sure sounds like common sense, but then, the funny thing about common sense is that it’s often wrong.
What Tom Coburn doesn’t say is that when pigs are raised in healthy conditions, they actually aren’t very smelly. The problem with stinking hog farms is a manifestation of a very serious problem with pollution of the air and the water, and degradation of the soil. The same factors that lead pigs to stink when they’re raised in large concentrations also lead to the creation of air that’s unhealthy for humans to breathe and water that’s unhealthy to drink. The CDC concludes that “Research to date indicates that neighbors of swine CAFOs can experience health problems at significantly higher rates than controlled comparison populations.” Concentrated pig farming operations also emit large amounts of gases that contribute to global warming.
Given the way that water and air tend to move around, the economic and environmental impact of a concentrated pig feeding operation can be felt thousands of miles away. For example, the CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) in Iowa that Tom Coburn dismisses contribute significantly to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which impacts the seafood industry there. Medical costs for human beings are created every mile along the way.
Sadly, industry-aligned politicians like Tom Coburn like to pretend that people can foul the air, the water and the ground without any consequences. The thing is that the nasty conditions on industrial hog farms aren’t just an environmental issue. They have an economic impact as well. Pork raised on factory farms is inexpensive, but that’s because huge pig farms externalize their expenses. They take the shortcuts that enable them to make big profits, but then the rest of us have to pay to clean up. That’s what the $1.719 million in the appropriations bill is all about.
Should cleaning up the huge amounts of pig manure that Iowa slops out be a priority for Congress right now? Yes, it should. Keeping our land, our air and our water clean pays for itself. If we allow pollution to flow freely, our nation’s economic recovery will be thwarted. It’s pretty difficult to run a successful business amidst unmanaged pig shit. We can’t have a healthy national economy if the American people are living in filth. Spending $1.719 million to control nasty pollution from swine CAFOs is an excellent investment.
Senator Coburn ought to know better than to pretend that these problems don’t exist. He’s from Oklahoma, after all. If he doesn’t know about the problems caused by the immense expansion and concentration of swine in the American Midwest over the last generation, then he has been working in Washington D.C. for too long.