Monday, April 26, 2021

Recently someone in my peer group publicly stated, “I counsel students if they conduct research for an academic institution (to) avoid advocacy related to their professional focus. Your research will become biased or perceived as such and you lose credibility.” Now this statement, mind you, comes from a person who some might say has strenuously advocated for the prevention of soil erosion throughout their career. As a long-term observer of this advocacy, I will say it did nothing to hurt this person’s credibility, and in fact enhanced it.

So I am a little perplexed by the statement and can only conclude that the students felt like advocating for the wrong thing. Clearly it could not have been the prevention of soil erosion. Who determines what is acceptable advocacy? Important people, I guess. I have some ideas on that.

But thinking on this a little bit, I thought that it might be an opportunity to illustrate the contrasting mindsets we have here in Iowa for soil erosion and water pollution, especially nutrient pollution. It is surely true that soil erosion degrades water quality and rivals hydrological modification and nutrification for the amount of damage it has done to our waterways. While any drive across the countryside shows there is a wide-range of tolerance amongst farmers for erosion, almost all recognize it as a threat to their bottom line, the long-term productive capacity of the farm, and the value of their land. I suppose they might exist, but I know of no person anywhere that has been criticized for zealously advocating against soil erosion. Nutrient loss and the related water pollution—not so much. This is not a new phenomenon (it goes back decades) and it should be curious to us. Why do Dr. Jekylls advocate against soil erosion while Mr. Hydes snort anhydrous ammonia?

Photo of Fredric March portraying Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 film of the same name
Fredric March portrayed both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the 1931 film of that name.

There are probably a range of answers for the dichotomy that exists vis a vis erosion versus nutrient loss, and I speculate on some here:

  1. Fertilizer sales data, estimates from the federal government, and farmer surveys all illustrate that on average, Iowa farmers disagree with Iowa State University recommendations on fertilizer amounts. That is, farmers think they need more.
  2. A lot of money is being made in the industry overselling nitrogen fertilizer, and there are no negative consequences to doing so. And if they get a squeamish farmer that wants to apply recommended amounts (or less), you can always try to sell inhibitor products that purport to keep the nitrogen on the field. And what business doesn’t want to sell more stuff? Nobody wants to sell less stuff. I’m always reminded of that old Tom Ryan comedy bit about baking soda and salt (2:25).
  3. Soil erosion is highly visible to both the farmer and his/her neighbors. It’s a stigma. By contrast, nitrogen pollution doesn’t show up to the human eye until it has traveled downstream where a few algae cells stumble onto it like teenagers finding keg of Busch Lite and before you know it, the entire senior class is having a pool party and breaking the furniture. Or something like that, I don’t know.
  4. Wasting nitrogen does little or no long-term damage to the farm compared to soil erosion.
  5. Erosion is regulated—nitrogen pollution isn’t, and powerful people want to keep it that way. You may not know it, but we have had federal rules in place since 1985 to reduce erosion. That year’s farm bill created Conservation Compliance, which requires farmers cropping highly erodible land (HEL) to operate in certain ways if they want to participate in federal farm programs. We have no such framework for nutrients, although we sorely need it.
  6. Excess nutrification is intimately connected to the livestock industry. Over-fertilization with manure is embedded into and endorsed by the manure management plans required by our current CAFO regulations, which even allow 100 pounds per acre of nitrogen application to soybeans. Industry people love this like the senior class loves Busch Lite.
  7. Max Bushels. I’ve written in the past about our Max Acres culture, but we could also depict it as a Max Bushels culture as well. Eking out that last bushel may require an economically unwise amount of fertilizer, but who cares! More bushels means more money is juicing the system at both the front (seeds, insurance, fertilizer) and the back (drying, shipping, storing, checkoff dollars for commodity organizations). Erosion means the opposite.

Well there you have it. If there are any students reading this, I hope you fight like hell for what you believe in, because Iowa is not going to get any better unless you do.