Hog extermination, activists' ploys highlight need for a deeper look at how we farm in Iowa

A highly publicized hog kill underscores the need to debate Iowa's sacred cows. Are crop monocultures, factory farming the best models for these times?


Rekha Basu, Opinion, Des Moines Register (IA)

Jun 19, 2020


When Matt Johnson was 4, he experienced a traumatic moment of truth. The Cresco, Iowa, child realized "what was on my plate was not benign food but the body of an animal who wanted to live, like the dogs and cats around me."


Since he didn't yet have the word for meat, Johnson told his parents, "I don't want to eat animals." They thought it was a cute childhood phase. But that was 30 years ago and he says he hasn't eaten meat since.


Growing up in a religious family, Johnson had to square his rejection of meat with something he'd been taught: "God gave us animals for food." Fearing that God didn't want him to be vegetarian indeed that it was unhealthy not to eat meat he kept silent about his vegetarianism, even to close friends. He graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in accounting in 2008. But as he grew older, he shed his religion and career path and got involved with animal rights. He thought about mass movements that spurred social progress, led by leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., in which civil disobedience played a central role. In 2014 he connected with the then year-old organization Direct Action Everywhere in Berkeley, California, which engaged in acts of civil disobedience to save animals. He's now its press coordinator.


But he's making news here in Iowa, where he faces up to five years in prison if convicted of third-degree burglary, trespassing and electronic eavesdropping. The charges stem from his arrest in late May for entering Iowa Select Farms in Grundy County to secretly videotape the killing of thousands of pigs via "ventilation shutdown." That involves turning off the ventilation and increasing the heat and humidity. The video, which was publicly released, shows pigs screaming as they suffocate. Johnson calls the procedure "depraved."


Iowa Select Farms spokeswoman Jen Sorenson calls having to do it devastating, but says that when COVID-19 "took away the food service market" by closing and limiting packing plants, their capacity to process was halved. Among other adaptations, Iowa Select changed what it was feeding hogs to slow their growth and keep them longer. Also, "We built some more farms with additional finishing space. We donated animals. We called 27 local facilities to take the hogs."