Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Notes: Some of these words and ideas came from the head of Dr. Silvia Secchi. 

Nexus is one of those trendy words that can help a frequent user sound more relevant. It’s so much sexier (it has an “x”, after all) than mundane synonyms like connection, and let’s face it, good luck with any book or grant proposal with a title such as “The overlap between food, agriculture and water quality”. To play in the big leagues you really need titles like this: Want, waste or war?: the global resource nexus and the struggle for land, energy, food, water and minerals (1). Now that’s a sexy title (it’s a real book).

Anyway, as I wander the wilderness hoping to stumble onto relevancy, I think about the nexus of Iowa agriculture, science, policy and our degraded water quality. When it comes to this discussion, it seems to me that we have three distinct camps or belief systems, and the next few paragraphs describe them as I see it. These groups include farmers of course but also scientists, politicians, business people and the interested public.

The Fundamentalists

All in with the current production system, the Fundamentalists feel there are good reasons why it has emerged triumphant. When it comes to food, and especially protein, they believe consumers are happy and point out that Americans spend a small portion of their income on eating. Corn is their beacon that brings home the bacon, and we grow soybeans, well, because bugs and yield drag prevent wall-to-wall corn carpeting in the Iowaroom. Fundamentalists believe nothing will ever produce as many sustainable calories as Zea mays (corn) and if we can’t feed it all to ourselves or our animals, then we can burn it in our cars and wallpaper our bathroom with it if need be. While some acknowledge there are consequences for water quality and some of that some are willing to try to reduce the negative effects, most see those consequences as, well, worth it. It’s a cost of doing business. The tradeoff we’re forced to endure for cheap food and food security. Many or most of these folks will tenaciously defend the existing system.

The Unitarians

The Unitarians aren’t 100% sold on it, but they believe that Iowa’s dominant farming system is the outcome of at least some good science and policy. Most of them, however, also suspect that its environmental consequences are real and serious enough to require urgent action, and to that end, they are mostly supportive of using public funds for conservation on private lands. They find the idea of a more diverse Iowa landscape intriguing, but if Fundamentalist farmers can up their environmental game, then Unitarians are willing to call it good.

The Heretics

While I think the views are most diverse here, there is a common thread and that is a belief that the present system will never produce the environmental outcomes the public deserves. Some Heretics will also say the system has been bad for our bodies, our culture, and the rural Iowa economy. They see the system as rigged and hopelessly entangled with powerful economic and political forces. The only reasonable path forward is to transition the system to something different, but what that is exactly can vary greatly from Heretic to Heretic. Heretics are underwhelmed by the environmental benefits resulting from taxpayer-funded conservation and believe that money has only perpetuated the existing system and entrenched it for decades to come.

Moving on, I should first say it is always risky to label people and groups, and I see no benefit to drawing certain distinctions just for the sake of doing so. So, you might ask, why do it? The reason is that I think the future of Iowa water quality, and maybe the future of Iowa in general, is strongly related to the dynamic (another relevance-generating word) between these three groups.

I doubt many people can imagine an Iowa future without corn. It’s easy to see why this starch- and sugar-making machine had religious meaning for many Native American cultures. For some it was a dietary savior. Iowa weather and soil, crop genetics and other technologies, policies that favor trade and specialization, and indemnification of its production have made Corn the King the chosen one to the exclusion of all others. No other crops will come before Him.

But have we focused so much on corn that we have forgotten about some other things that might be holy to us—our rural communities and our water?

As agriculture has consolidated, so have our schools: from over 4000 Iowa school districts mid-20th century to 333 now (2). When I look at county-level population data going back to 1969 (3), seven of our 99 counties (Polk, Johnson, Dallas, Linn, Story, Scott and Warren) have added a combined 509,000 people while the rest of Iowa lost 158,000 people. Over the last 50 years, 66 Iowa counties have lost population; 34 have declined more than 20%. And many of these lie within our BEST areas for growing corn and soy: Pocahontas County, -47%, Calhoun County, -34%; Cherokee County, -34%; Kossuth County, -36%; Sac County, -38%. I’m old enough to remember when small towns had not only a school but also a physician, an attorney, a grocery store and a restaurant, and a barbershop. On this point, I must side with the Heretics: Rural Iowa helped King Corn prosper but He sure didn’t make Rural Iowa prosperous. He is a jealous god, I suppose. Or maybe a more rational way to look at it is that 2/3 of our counties made a deal with the devil. The cost of doing business has been the demise of small town Iowa.

Iowa population growth

So you might reasonably wonder if this piece is “out of my lane” (trendy phrase). What does this have to do with water quality? I’m convinced that Fundamentalism (and the resulting consolidation) has complicated our issues with nitrogen pollution. As the farms get bigger, the farmers fewer, the hogs more numerous, and the weather wetter, time windows for field work get shorter. Why do we keep putting tile in? We HAVE to. We need more tile to move more water so that more acres get planted in the spring. Why do we do fall tillage? We HAVE to. Not enough time to get it done in the spring. Why do we apply manure to too-warm soil and on top of snow? We HAVE to. There’s too much to handle in too short of time.

Unfortunately, we don’t HAVE to have clean water.  I guess.

As I’ve been thinking about this piece these past few days, I quite accidentally became aware of this Bible verse (Ecclesiastes 9:11). It’s beautiful writing: I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to people of understanding, nor favor to the skillful, but time and chance happeneth to them all.

That’s all I want to say today.

  1. Andrews-Speed, P., Bleischwitz, R., Boersma, T., Johnson, C., Kemp, G. and VanDeveer, S.D., 2014. Want, waste or war?: the global resource nexus and the struggle for land, energy, food, water and minerals. Routledge.
  3. U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis