I wrote Stop Saying We All Want Clean Water on a snowy April weekend three years ago, and here I am again looking down at my keyboard and up at falling snow. Why does spring snow seem so aberrant to us when its appearance is a near certainty? I guess you could say that about other things too.
SSWACW was written as a manifesto of sorts, a stream-of-consciousness-volcano-of-frustration erupting because I’d had it with the brazen dishonesty that characterizes establishment agriculture and Iowa’s water quality. Having been around a while, I had no expectation that the essay would change things, and the last time I checked, truth in agriculture is still about as common as an acre of Iowa farmland carpeted with a cover crop. Just like our bad water, this dishonesty isn’t unique to Iowa; the entire cornbelt is awash in both. I sometimes wonder if that old saying “a kernel of truth” wasn’t conjured up in some Ag comm shop where the objective was to cornify literally everything, and gaslighting especially. But I digress. I want to focus today on how Russia’s assault of Ukraine has provided yet one more excuse for the aggies to assault the truth and how this has been manifested in a call to release CRP land to production.
CRP—Conservation Reserve Program—sets aside agricultural production land whereby it is planted to native species such as perennial grasses, for example. Farmers are paid to do this—you can think of this as the government renting the land from the farmer for positive environmental outcomes such as wildlife habitat and improved water quality. Fields enrolled in CRP programs are usually a farmer’s least-productive and most environmentally-sensitive land, and these fields remain uncultivated for ten years or more.
About a month ago, a noted Ag economist at the land grant university 150 miles east of here told his social media followers this: “I've been thinking about this all day and I came to the conclusion that it’s time for the Biden Admin to consider opening up the CRP for cropping in 2022.” This is indeed interesting. Something tells me it took him less than a day to come up with that idea. That’s because this fellow happened to be featured in a 2013 New York Times article titled “Academics Who Defend Wall Street Reap Reward” (1). Here’s a snippet: “(He) consults for a business that serves hedge funds, investment banks and other commodities speculators, according to information received by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act. The business school at the University has received more than a million dollars in donations from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and several major commodities traders, to pay for scholarships and classes and to build a laboratory that resembles a trading floor at the commodities market.”
And it keeps going: “Some of his recent research has been funded by major players in the commodities world. Last year, he was paid $50,000 as a consultant for Gresham Investment Management in Chicago, which manages $16 billion and runs its own commodities index fund. He also works for a business called Yieldcast that caters to agricultural producers, investments banks and other speculators, selling them predictions of corn and soybean yields.”
U.S. politicians, who have been known to carry agribusiness’ polluted water from time to time, have been only too happy to jump on this landwagon. This includes U.S. senators Marco Rubio, John Boozman, and Cynthia Lummis calling on USDA secretary Tom Vilsack to release CRP acres for planting (2).
CRP has been blamed for a lot of things, including inflation of land values and the price to rent cropland. It’s also been blamed for depopulating rural Iowa, and Iowa senator and weallwantcleanwaterer Joni Ernst has implied CRP is a driver of rural poverty. Increasing food prices and the risk of hunger and famine is the latest excuse by agribusiness and its patrons to frame CRP into an orange jumpsuit so they can exploit the current crisis at the expense of the environment, in this case, letting farmers opt out of CRP contracts and bring the land into production.
Now who among us wouldn’t favor crop production on CRP to save starving people? But is that really the play here? Can they really think we’re that dumb? We use an area the size of 20 Iowa counties to produce corn for ethanol—11,000 square miles—and this is just in Iowa alone. An area at least as large as the state of Mississippi is used to produce corn ethanol nationwide. And of course Agribusiness soils their britches when people propose something that would actually lower commodity prices: waiving the Renewable Fuel Standard. And here’s a nugget the Feedtheworldians don’t want you to know: we could very likely meet the caloric needs of every human being on earth—and then some—with just the land used for U.S. ethanol production. It might not look and taste very good, but it could be done.
What’s the true objective here with these calls to release CRP? Obviously, it’s so agribusiness can sell more junk—drain tile, seed, fertilizer, pesticide, machinery, and insurance, a lot of which is what pollutes your water. CRP, in case you haven’t noticed, requires none of that stuff.
There is a natural constriction on growth in agribusiness: land. As they say, god ain’t making any more of it, and these vultures would make you grow corn in your living room if they could. We All Want Clean Water, my ass.
So I see our state government is still saying Iowa has made great strides on reducing phosphorus pollution (3). Folks, there’s just very little evidence of this in the water. Yes, there is evidence that farmers have adopted practices that can reduce phosphorus loss. These things are not the same thing. As I’ve said before, the real threat to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is not criticism from its detractors, it’s from people telling the public the water is getting better when there is empirical evidence that it is not. Iowa leaders can try to 1984 this all they want, but there’s always going to be some crank like me around to take some measurements. And people aren’t stupid—most know bad water when they see and smell it.
The core concept of the Nutrient Strategy—identifying practices that are known to work and then incentivizing farmers to adopt them—is old school and intuitive; it’s not radical policy when it comes to ag and the environment. The problem we have is that to solve a problem of this magnitude, we must collectively want and prioritize clean water, or this, or any policy for that matter, won’t work. We don’t and we never have. Our priority is selling junk, and people that sell junk give a lot of money to our politicians. This is not complicated.
When we don’t all want clean water, any policy is worse than nothing because it serves as a mirage of sorts that people can gaze at when they feel bad about the pollution. It provides the chimera that we’re “doing something,” when all we’re really doing is entrenching the status quo. We are not addressing, nor does the ag establishment want us to address, the core drivers of water pollution in Iowa. That might affect the junk sale, don’t you know. The other component of this is that we still lack the courage to restrict bad practices. Cleaning the field by the highway with cover crops and the back forty with a bioreactor does not wash away the stain of more tile, more animals, and more fertilizer. This has nothing to do with whether or not “THE NUTRIENT STRATEGY IS WORKING!” People in ag are about as concerned with that as they are with starving Ukrainian infants.
I have no expectation that Iowa’s water will improve before the end of my life. That doesn’t mean I’m hopeless on the subject, but I am a realist and what I see happening around me is not encouraging. We’ve tried appeals to conscience when it comes to land use for the better part of a century now in Iowa and other agricultural landscapes, and the truth is, these appeals have failed to hold back the agricultural horde. Iowans that want to enjoy nature have had to learn to cope with the debasement of post-European settlement Iowa, or go somewhere else to find the nature they want.
If we want clean water, we need laws and we need people to have the courage to say that. A lot of people.