Tuesday, August 2, 2022

It seems to me that if you’re a crop geneticist or an agronomist, you cannot drive across the Iowa countryside this time of year (late July) without being in awe of what you and your comrades in arms have done to the landscape. A bizarrely uniform 8’-thick mat of black-green biomass layers the flats and the rolling hills alike, interrupted only by roads and water, some of the latter of which might generously be called rivers. The ancients could not possibly recognize this as Iowa or even planet earth, for that matter.

Rearranged DNA, steel, pvc tubing and huge amounts of fossil fuel dropped into this already-fertile corner of the earth produced a photosynthesis mine of unimaginable potential that generates the mother lode of organic carbon in the leaves, roots, stalks and most importantly the seeds of Zea mays. But there’s no free lunch in nature and I sometimes wonder if these same geneticists and agronomists are ever in an Oppenheimer-like awe of the environmental wreckage wrought by their single-minded selfish and hubristic fetish with the bushel. I know I’m in awe of it. Eradicating three ecosystems, man, it’s not just any scientist that can claim an accomplishment like that.

The fact that we’ve assigned the blame for the wreckage and our wretched water quality to the farmer has been very convenient for scientists, engineers, and businesspeople, the Smith and Wesson, Remington, and Colts of the ag world—'hey, we just make the guns, we don’t pull the triggers.’ Of course, the farmers crave what they sell and are hostile to the government intervening on any of it, and the feckless cowards in politics are only too happy to oblige.

The collateral damage is the public’s problem and ours to clean up after the fact, should we choose to do so. Much of the damage is irreparable. We’re led to believe by the propogandists and some others that should know better that somehow, someway, someday, the system’s pieces can be arranged in a way that will allow us to live in a place with a sliver of environmental integrity. In the meantime, they’ll keep making bank, thank you.

Far northeast Iowa, Clayton County, for example, is what some might consider ‘marginal’ in Iowa for growing corn. Erosion is severe on the mere (for Iowa) half of the land that is cropped and nutrient loss is off the charts, yet the corn there looks fabulous right now, as good as anywhere in the state. I can only imagine the look on a farmer’s face if someone told him or her that this ground was ‘marginal’. And is it, compared to the near desert of the Texas panhandle, irrigated western Kansas, and the sponge that is the Red River Valley of the North, all places where we shamelessly try to grow corn?

bloody run nitrate

In the northern part of Clayton County resides the now famous Bloody Run Creek. Water quality sensors are deployed downstream near the town of Marquette, and upstream, within sight of a large hog confinement and the 11,000-head Supreme Beef cattle operation. The nitrate here at this site almost never falls below 20 ppm (as N), probably 100 times the pre-settlement background condition. Can the stream survive this chemical adulteration? Maybe, but why are we even forced to consider the question? Why has our state’s DNR shepherded Supreme’s herd into the watershed, one of only 34 they themselves (DNR) deem to be of ‘outstanding’ water quality? When one of your outstanding waters has a nitrate over 20, well, that tells you a little a something about the ones without the outstanding designation.

And herein lies part of the problem. We insist that what we’re already doing (corn/soy/CAFO/ethanol) is THE best thing we can do here on Iowa’s land, and since our land is THE best place to do that, we should do AS MUCH of it here as possible, so, Katy bar the door, because it makes more sense to wreck the environment even further here as opposed to places like the slopes of Kentucky or Driftless Wisconsin. Of course, this self-serving logic was conjured up in the brains of the people who benefit most from it and persists only because we the public have been willing to tolerate the wreckage.

bloody run headwaters
Bloody Run Creek Headwaters

Our society created the current condition and as such, we should be able to chart a path out of it. But this will take an enormous amount of moxie and wit because millionaires in agriculture hang on our institutions like so many hideous gargoyles, resolute in their mission to scare away the weak and undetermined while emboldened by our politicians that they have a license to do so.

There was an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel over the weekend (picked up by the Cedar Rapids Gazette) titled ‘Could Great Lakes fix work for the Mississippi River?’ Firstly, precious little of the Great Lakes has been ‘fixed’ when it comes to ag pollution. None of it has been fixed, to be honest. Lake Erie is still a mess and Green Bay (the Bay, not the city) more than lives up to its name due to crop and livestock pollution. But indeed, there has been a lot of money spent, which is what counts as a ‘fix’ in ag pollution world. The writers state that “The Great Lakes initiative is widely recognized as a success story. To date, it has funded over 6,500 projects totaling more than $3 billion, and it got a recent billion-dollar boost from the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Republicans and Democrats alike have voted to increase funding for the initiative nearly every year since it passed.” But Holy Toledo, the Lake Erie Algae Bloom was worse than expected last year and double the previous year. Nonetheless, nothing screams success like a politician cosplaying in the barnyard of a friendly farmer who’s proud to be part of the solution. Unless that solution means less animals. Or less fertilizer. Or less tile. Or laws.

green bay
Image credit: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

As to the Betty McCollum-sponsored (D-MN) Mississippi River Initiative, Maisah Khan, policy director at the Mississippi River Network, said she begins each pitch about the initiative by underscoring that it’s a voluntary program, not a regulatory one. (Read: a regulatory approach would not be taken seriously by agriculture.) As such, she said there’s not been much disagreement about the importance something like this could have. So yes, as impossible as it might be for you to believe, there has been little disagreement about sprinkling $330 million here and there around the Mississippi River basin.

Knock me over with a feather.