So far, we’ve analyzed the cultural and economic environment environment in Iowa, the stakeholders-at-large, as well as the increasingly deteriorating actual environment (in terms of water). So now, for part FOUR… we can take a little peek at the policy used so far to address what some would call “deep-seeded issues,” and what others might regard as “small problems.”
What’s with the Farm Bill?
The current approach regarding agricultural policies comes to light in the 2014 Farm Bill: the rather large grouping of rules that U.S. Congress and Department of Agriculture comes up with that encompasses a bunch of super-fun stuff like problems, goals, and solution-seeking approaches for agriculture . Even though the “Farm Bill” sounds like something pretty darn straightforward… it clearly isn’t (and has never, really, been), as it was the sixth most lobbied measure in 2013! Based on this and some of the 2014 Farm Bill’s measures, it’s my personal opinion that the legislation maaay have been influenced by big-spenders like the International Dairy Foods Association and the American Farm Bureau .
The Farm Bill also gives money to good ol’ Commodity Programs, Crop Insurance Subsidies, and Conservation Programs. According to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Farm Subsidy Database, Iowa’s subsidy records from 1995-2017 show that the state received the second largest amount of Federal Aid by way of Commodity Programs ($18.7 billion), with corn subsidies leading the way ($19,171,377,551). Talk about a GOLDEN grain! Though— I feel like it’s important to note that necessities for conservation have over time, indeed, been acknowledged by the USDA (props, friends)!
The Legislative Gist:
The very basic present policy theme is that Environmentalists unwittingly favor numerous types of new legislation for conservation— including promotion, education, and funding. The general perspective looks to be that “anything is is better than nothing!” Contrastingly, Cornucopians (although not totally) tend to reject pro-environment legislation, citing that it’ll hurt them economically. Cornucopian rejection happens in various strategic ways— rejecting environmental problems in total, rejecting the extent of their impacts if proven wrong, and finally proposing solutions that won’t really solve the problem if proven wrong, yet again. From their perspective, current policies are “good enough” and the problems that exist can be solved voluntarily or with through the market itself.
The Iowa Policy Project’s & 3 Part “Nutrient Reduction Strategy”
An Environmentalist-group, the Iowa Policy Project created a strikingly comprehensive corn-policy plan. This snazzy group (mentioned in Part Two: Environmentalist Stakeholders) suggests a three part “Nutrient Reduction Strategy” that tries to take both Environmental and Cornucopian ideas into consideration.
Area 1: “I think we need to take a break…”
“I think we need to take a break…,” as in, let’s give cropland some time to rest. Area one talks specifically about continuing/building up the Conservation Reserve Program and Pasture (aka “CRP”) that already technically exists. This program has farmland go into “pasture,” (basically remains unused) for an amount of time in order to replenish nutrients… and stuff. But, the CRP program has gotten some criticism in recent years for being given such a shining spotlight. It would require a hefty amount of CRP land to have clean water in Iowa, though, and even with recent increase in CRP land… apparently the Iowa water table hasn’t benefitted all THAT much.
What are Cornucopians saying, you might ask? Well, it seems that they’re opposed to the CRP practice (and for good reason— from their perspective). Without farmers to buy and use fertilizers (and produce cheap corn)— Agribusiness loses a ton of their market and businesses lose inexpensive raw materials. Cornucopians tried to say “Thank you, next!” to CRP programs when 72 agribusiness lobbyists argued that farmers should be able to end their CRP land leases early and without penalty during the 2011 agricultural supply shortage.
Area 2: “You’re blocked!”
“You’re blocked!,” as in, pesticides and other harsh chemicals are blocked by strategic buffers on the edges of farms and other areas to keep them from infiltrating streams. The second Nutrient Reduction Strategy solution suggests buffers and grassed waterways to reduce pollution runoff. In theory, this solution would make Environmentalists and Cornucopians happy— everyone could be friends again! Pollution wouldn’t flow into waterways and Agribusiness could stay prosperous… a win-win. At the moment, taxpayers in Iowa fund some programs to implement these practices already. However, an EWG investigation from 2011 to 2014 used as an example in an Iowa Policy Project Report proved that many of these buffers were unmaintained after formation. Basically, it’s hard for farmers to maintain these buffered waterways/ grassy areas after they’re built for them. Continuous participation is voluntary and they’re not compensated very much if they do participate, if at all.
Area 3: “Can we fix this?”
“Can we fix this?,” as in restore soil without the use of inorganic chemicals. Solution number three from the NRS is more widely known as a soil restoration practice in farming communities: cover cropping! The draw of cover cropping in Iowa corn production lies is the fact that the practice reduces the need for synthetic fertilizer and restores soil at the same time! A huge part of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013 was encourage farmers to plant cover crops after their main crops were harvested, and much of the state’s farming conservation budget went into plan. Some would say that cover-cropping was relatively successful (see graph). BUT from another perspective, the gain of 400,000 acres can be seen as pretty darn small if one takes into account that 400,000 acres is less than 2% of cropland in Iowa. Research sees the NRS not having made significant nitrogen reduction from the latest data.
According to the report, it’s certain that this strategy along with other traditional soil restoration practices like crop rotation are ever-present of the Environmentalist-Radar, as to them it makes sense it use natural processes that do not impact water quality.
Yet, some Cornucopians (mainly fertilizer companies), see cover-cropping as a looming threat. A farming magazine made for agribusiness retailers, distributors, and consultants published a fear invoking story titled “Cover Crop Bandwagon Frustrates Farmers,” detailing numerous, budget-busting troubles farmers had gone through in their conservation efforts. Promoting messages like this in the media clashes with the Iowa Policy Project/Environmentalists’ goal— influencing readers in the business of farming with strong rhetoric. They may not have formed a strong opinion about cover cropping yet, but they probably have a negative one after this article.
It’s no surprise that the website, “AgPro” doesn’t endorse a pesticide-free life, though. This news source (a sub-organization of “Farm Journal Media”) has actual sections on which inorganic chemicals to use on plants (see “Crop Protection” and “Fungicides”) and other branches of their parent organization are solely based on this subject entirely (see “Greenbook”). They also have numerous advertisements on their websites (and undoubtably their radio/television/magazine media channels as well), and numerous of those advertisements that I personally saw during research featured inorganic chemicals for use on food crops. Farm Journal Media probably isn’t qualified to be giving farmers advice on what “best practice” is in this area from an unbiased perspective, considering their stake in the industry via partnerships and advertisements is so high.
(The video above is an invigorating (but lengthy, as a warning) lecture on the state of water in Iowa by Professor David Osterberg (University of Iowa Occupational and Environmental Health), who was the former director at the Iowa Policy Project!)
A Union of Iowan Farmers
The Iowa Farmers Union, coming from a small family farm Environmental approach, also takes a deep-dive into policy. Highlights involving conservation are abundant, and include that Iowa corn farmers, “should be targeted toward environmental incentives instead of simply reimbursing the costs of pollution control systems”. Basically, the Farmers Union is calling for government give farmers back money for not-polluting, AND more importantly— provide reasons ($$) for farmers to want to be eco-friendly in the first place!! To them, it’s about achieving MORE instead of CONTROLLING what’s already there. Go Iowa Farmer’s Union!
Going off this point, this small-scale Iowan farmers also support legislation that would incentivize farmers to reduce chemical use (nitrogen) and work towards sustainable agriculture. Less nitrogen in the soil is often seen as a “win” for many (less pollution in the waterways means less people are sick, the government does not have to pay as much to treat the water, etc.)— even the farmers if they get some cash from it. In the end, the small Iowan farmers are discouraged, to say the least. If their legislative policy makes anything abundantly clear— it’s that they want their livelihoods back.
That’s a wrap?
It’s clear (so far) that not everyone feels like their needs are being met it this scenario. The water table is so muddled with chemicals that some towns are having to install massive, expensive, treatment plants so children won’t become sick, farmers are losing money, agribuisness feels threatened… What is everyone to do?!
Be sure to go back and read Part 1— The Raw History of Corn and Conservation Agriculture Policy in Iowa, and Part 2—What do Iowan Environmentalists Say about Corn Policy?, and Part 3— What & Who are Cornucopian Stakeholders in Iowa’s Cornfields?!
Check out the final post in this series at Part 5— Summary & Policy Recommendations for Corn in Iowa. You can find the whole series in the Agriculture Policy Seriestab!