Thursday, January 23, 2020

The California-sized Black Sea is bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia and Turkey. It receives freshwater from several major European Rivers (especially the Danube) but Mediterranean Sea saltwater also intrudes through a hydrological connection known as the Bosphorus. Thus, Black Sea water is saltier than a lake but fresher than the ocean, producing a diverse ecosystem and productive fishery. Resorts along its shoreline have promoted Black Sea water as therapeutic for at least two centuries.

Black Sea in center of map

In the 1960s, USSR agricultural policy increased use of chemical fertilizers and establishment of huge animal production systems in Soviet-bloc countries (link). One Romanian CAFO reportedly had more than a million hogs. By the 1970s, the Black Sea beaches of Ukraine and Romania were graveyards of fish, clams and crabs doomed by a hypoxic Dead Zone created by Danube River discharge and its baggage stuffed with nitrogen and phosphorus.

Now it must be said that industrial and municipal discharge carried by the Danube from as far away as Germany helped degrade the Black Sea. Budapest, Vienna, Belgrade, Munich, Bucharest and many other large cities lie within its watershed.

A curious chain of events followed the fall of the USSR in 1989.  Many of the huge CAFOs closed and use of chemical fertilizers declined. Only six years later in 1995, it was apparent that the Black Sea was recovering. By 2002, sensitive mussel beds were reestablished and other ecological indicators were improving.

Danube River Watershed

Similar European dead zones are ongoing in the Baltic and North Seas of the northern part of the continent. Agricultural waste is a strong contributor there also, as both the Netherlands and Denmark (12 million and 28 million hogs, respectively) have animal production systems similar to our own here in Iowa, which we know supplies hypoxia-driving nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico.

So speaking of the Gulf of Mexico, this article came my way last week: Reviving the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone. I was particularly interested in this comment in the article from the Iowa Pork Producers: “The Iowa Pork Producers Association  believes there is no science to support that pork farming has any relation to the dead zone in the Gulf.”

Mmm hmm.

I have to wonder what catalyzes such a brazen statement. It was far enough out there in la-la land that I felt compelled to confirm its accuracy with one of the article’s authors (they did confirm).

If rebuttal was the objective of this essay, I would plow into that weed-infested sod and try to turn it over on itself, but explaining that gravity exists is boring to me, and it would probably be boring for you to read. Instead I will just go broad spectrum on the statement and say that when I search manure + Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia in the Google Scholar search engine, I get 1800 results, and a lot of those papers are from Iowa including this one: Effects of liquid swine manure applications on NO3–N leaching losses to subsurface drainage water from loamy soils in Iowa.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy “is a science and technology-based framework to assess and reduce nutrients to Iowa waters and the Gulf of Mexico.” On the Pork Producers’ own website it states that the voluntary strategy “has been developed in response to the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan that calls for the 12 states along the Mississippi River to develop strategies to reduce nutrient loading to the Gulf of Mexico.” Furthermore, IA Pork (along with IA Corn Growers Association and IA Soybean Association) was a founding member of the Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance, whose stated objective is to “accelerate the pace and scale of quantifiable water quality improvements in Iowa.”

If the Pork Producers Association doesn’t think they’re part of the problem, then a reasonable person could wonder (and speculate) about why they would want to be part of these other things.

I think these are reasonable questions for folks in agriculture: How is the public to know what rhetoric is serious, and what isn’t? What is truth, what is window dressing, and what is being said behind closed doors? Is there an NRCS practice standard to guide us, the public, on this?  Is the industry tailoring the rhetoric for an intended audience one day, and a different audience the next day? These are serious and fair questions for an industry indemnified with billions of public dollars.

Every day, Iowans are being asked to allow the ag industry to self-solve Iowa’s non-point source water pollution problems on their terms and on their time schedule, whatever that might be. Believe it or not, I do understand how reasonable people can rationalize this approach, but herein lies the issue: when a major commodity organization is telling its members that they aren’t the cause of the problem (and it stands to reason that they are telling them this, if they’re bold enough to say it in public), then volunteer conservation all of a sudden doesn’t sound like a smart option, from several different perspectives.

It makes the grown-up inside of me suspect the cute “voluntary but not optional” rhetoric we frequently hear from the industry and our agencies is unserious. If you don’t think you’re the cause, it seems to me you’re probably going to wait for the people that you think are the cause to volunteer.

Like golf course operators, I suppose.

Ok, so it would be wrong for me to use that one comment to tar the entire agricultural industrial complex (AIC). I know there have been some good faith efforts at water quality improvement out there in commodity land. But I just have to say this: the Iowa Pork Producers Association is not some fly-by-night organization. What they say has repercussions for ALL IOWANS, and not just their members, who raise one out of every three hogs in the U.S. and are responsible for managing the fecal waste equivalent of three Californias.

Now I have been told in the past that I should ignore the outrageous industry rhetoric and accept it as an anomaly when it inevitably reappears. I think this is a mistake. I think the outrageous is the problem in Iowa.

I believe rhetoric matters. The platitude people sure know this. Why else would we hear so much of it? Sometimes I think “voluntary but not optional” is the roll-in-the-hay progeny of “feeding the world” and “we all want clean water.” My advice to them: get a thesaurus already.

I believe rhetoric has consequences. I once thought I’d rather drink Drano than to ever be forced to answer another question about Des Moines Water Works discharging waste brine from their nitrate removal facility. Two jobs and nine years later, I’m STILL answering questions about that. At a recent meeting, I heard a university professor say he was scheduled to conduct a presentation at some hinterland location to dispel the idea that turf grass was the cause of the nitrate problem. I’m sure there are a few people that will read those last couple of sentences and smugly smile in satisfaction. And those things are nothing compared to the rhetoric-driven foot-dragging that has plagued Iowa water quality over the past 40 years.

Since I’m making the case that rhetoric matters, I’m going to finish this mess by proposing my own:


It’s short, easy to remember, and doesn’t rely on bizarre conflation of synonyms.

So, somebody, anybody, please, Free Iowa Now from this taxpayer-subsidized curse of polluted water and the malignant propaganda that continues to excuse it.

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