The ag propagandists lack of creativity is more than balanced by their relentlessness and the fact that they are unburdened by shame. Imagine if the Energizer bunny copulates (he is a rabbit, after all) with all the killer rabbits from the '72 horror movie The Night of the Lepus (mutant rabbits terrorize Janet Leigh and DeForest Kelly) and their horde of offspring stampede the countryside devouring the truth. Or something like that.
Take phosphorus, for example. Our secretary of agriculture was recently quoted saying "We've come a long way on our phosphorus reduction goals in the state of Iowa due to a lot of management practices that have been put in place, cover crops, no-till, conservation tillage in the state of Iowa" (1). And not to be outdone, one-time Secretary of Agriculture hopeful and Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser was quoted saying in an EPA roundtable meeting that “Iowa has reduced phosphorus losses by 27%" (2). Reminds me of an old joke about Minnesota and Iowa and manure and the punch line is "Mr. RabBIT will soon be here with the shit."
These statements are detached from reality.
There is not a shred of water quality data that shows phosphorus levels in our streams to be declining over the long haul, and in fact, the opposite is probably occurring (graphs at the bottom). USGS long-term phosphorus loading data in the basins draining to the Mississippi River at Clinton and the Missouri River at Hermann, MO (which capture water from Iowa streamflow) show no such decline. It is fair to wonder if Iowa is getting better while the states upstream from us are getting worse, but this is not borne out by Iowa-centric stream data (3,4) and in fact, Iowa could be driving increases or non-improvement in the border rivers, as Iowa stream phosphorus was found to be 43% higher in 2017 than 2004 (3). The graveyard whistlers make their claims based on the idea that we’ve put in some terraces and that 75% of farmers have parked the moldboard plow in a weed patch behind the shed where peaceful bunnies meet to copulate.
This narrative on phosphorus troubles me because I recall some big ag jackrabbits saying at the onset of Iowa’s Nutrient Strategy that the phosphorus objective (45%, with 29% from agriculture) may have already been nearly or completely met. This was ten years ago now. And here we are, with ag world celebrities saying exactly that. It's almost like....somebody knew something. The public should be hopping mad because these statements, which go unchallenged by the media and almost the entirety of the scientific community, do help mold policy, I can assure you. Federal agency staff and legislators, many of whom with little time and no ability to examine scientific data, hear such statements and take them at their face value.
We’re also told by our government officials that “the state has to balance the concerns of clean water with crop production” (1). Are they not telling us that because we live in Iowa, we’re less entitled to clean and safe water? Yes they are. Let’s examine it.
We have 70,000 miles of streams and less than 20 stream stretches that meet all their designated uses, with 585 water bodies impaired (5). We’ve had 6600 private wells exceed the safe standard for nitrate since 2000 (6). The “balance” the industry has in mind is that none of this can get better if it means sacrificing bushels. They’re entitled to their bushels, but we aren’t entitled to clean water. There’s no other way to read it.
Can we achieve meaningful water quality improvement with no sacrifice of bushels and no constraints on the livestock industry? In my view no, but if so, it will require virtual mountains of carrots (i.e. public money), just to give it a shot. And the ag people aren’t shy about telling you that. The mountains part, I mean. And if you’re not happy with the current progress thus far, it’s because the piles of money have only been of foothill proportions (7).
In a new paper in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association (8), researchers at Virginia Tech and elsewhere tell us that the problem is policy. They state that farmers and technical service providers at the agencies are rewarded for practice adoption, whether it improves the water or not (usually not, and remember the claims on phosphorus improvements in Iowa have been made based on practice adoption). Here's another gem from the paper: "The use of conventional BMPs (best management practices), most of which do not address excessive nutrient mass imbalances, offers limited potential to reduce non-point source loads." Oh my. My poor heart goes all aflutter when somebody at a land grant ag school (Virginia Tech and Penn State) is willing to say we we're applying more nutrients than what the crops need.
They go on to argue that the best solution would be to replace the current scheme, where farmers decide both whether and how they will control their pollution (we know how well that has worked), to one where a farmer or group of farmers is obligated to limit their pollution but has discretion and flexibility in deciding how that limit is met.
Now the statements of Mr. Gaesser (2) would seem to be consistent with this on some level: "How can somebody in Washington, D.C., tell us the best way to improve water quality without giving some deference to me and the 2 million other farmers who know their own land better than anyone else?” Ok, I’ll take that statement on its face. But here’s the rub: Iowa agriculture refuses to let us obligate farmers with limiting their pollution. Thus, there is no balance; the almighty bushel ALWAYS wins and your water suffers. You want clean water? PAY ME. And never mind if the only benefits your tax dollars produce are a good performance review for a USDA employee and a salve on the conscience of a guilty farmer.
It's all in the Virginia Tech paper, which is open access I believe. Water quality graphs follow the citations.
- A focus on nitrate reduction: Naig says federal grant will help Iowa with water quality. KCCI News, June 10, 2022.
- Neeley, T. Farmers to EPA: Need Partners, Not Regs. DTN Progressive Farmer, May 24, 2022.
- Schilling, K.E., Streeter, M.T., Seeman, A., Jones, C.S. and Wolter, C.F., 2020. Total phosphorus export from Iowa agricultural watersheds: Quantifying the scope and scale of a regional condition. Journal of Hydrology, 581, p.124397.
- Elliot Anderson, PhD thesis, University of Iowa, 2022.
- Jordan, E. Iowa impaired waters list grown in 2022. Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 21, 2022.
- Iowa Environmental Council. Iowa’s Private Wells Contaminated by Nitrate and Bacteria. April, 2019.
- DeGood, K. 2020. A Call to Action on Combating Nonpoint Source and Stormwater Pollution. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2020/10/27/492149/call-action-combating-nonpoint-source-stormwater-pollution/.
- Stephenson, K., Shabman, L., Shortle, J. and Easton, Z., 2022. Confronting our Agricultural Nonpoint Source Control Policy Problem. JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association.