Here we are— Part TWO of sustainable agriculture learning with a real life example in the geographical region of Iowa! So much fun research to share!
If you haven’t read Part 1— The Raw History of Corn and Conservation Agriculture Policy in Iowa, yet, click your fingers on over there to learn about the back-end-business of how agriculture grew up! You’ll also get some intel on subsidies, learn why it’s so darn hard to be a farmer in the U.S. today (Farmer Steve who sells me guavas at my local market attests to this as well) and why agriculture might be at the root of a lot of environmental problems (whhhaaaat?!).
This time we’re gettin’ down with specifics— and that means STAKEHOLDERS! AKA… Who the heck benefits from all those yellow grains grown? Here’s a handy dandy chart to keep things organized:
If you remember from Part 1— The Raw History of Corn and Conservation Agriculture Policy in Iowa, Environmentalists and Cornucopians exist on a scale where Environmentalists are generally more conservation/preservation-oriented and Cornucopians are more money/innovation motivated.
This post will focus on the ENVIRONMENTALIST perspective, but stay tuned for Part 3 to dive into Cornucopian Land!
First thing’s first:
Even though most Environmentalists generally want to conserve ecosystems and natural areas doesn’t mean their opinions will match in each and every case. An environmentalist perspective can be developed in SO many ways— whether it’s a certain educational background, geographical origin, or upbringing (or combination). Different worldviews create different opinions (and that’s okay, we just all need to talk to each other to figure things out 🙂 ).
One broad environmental perspective on Iowa’s corn is a science-forward point-of-view. In a report titled, “Subsidizing Waste,” the group, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report confusion at crop subsidies being so plant-specific and large in sum. The report says that in 2016, American farmers planted MORE corn that they knew they would LOSE money on in the market so they could “make it up” with subsidies. Personally—I would claim confusion too, if I were a scientist studying this scenario.
Nitrogen fertilizer is particularly key to the “output” component” to the process of corn growing (using it makes a big difference in amount farmers can harvest). It’s a pretty cheap fertilizer, so the consensus is that farmers over-apply to be safe. In total, corn is the nation’s largest user of nitrogen fertilizer at a whopping 46%.
If nitrogen fertilizer didn’t cause environmental and health problems, its use would remain a non-issue. However, it does, and environmentalists cite that the people of Iowa face unsafe water. The fertilizer seeps into waterways because most corn fields are left bare for lots of the year, (which lets leftover nitrogen to leach through soil and end up in waterways.
Many Environmentalists, pointing nitrogen fertilizer and its use, are frustrated. The Union of Concerned Scientists is sure that policy and laws are the problem. The say that regardless of what the the federal government or agribusiness was TRYNG TO DO, they have had the perverse effect of encouraging the overapplication of nitrogen fertilizer and causing detrimental environmental costs.
Smaller- Scale Farmers
Smaller scale farmers are interested in the environment because it’s literally their land. They’re concerned that policies in place don’t help THEM out: the farmers doing RIGHT by Iowa’s land. These small-scale farmers are also worried for the future of their small-farming industry in general with the seemingly ever-deteriorating environment.
A notable group of small farmers in Iowa is the Iowa Farmers Union. They specialize in responsible nitrogen application/identifying over-application, management on farms, and long term water/land quality of Iowa. Made up of small Iowan family farmers who are intent on farm bill betterment, they’re environmentalists because they have to be. If they decide not to be, their view is that their land will be degraded by chemicals and climate. They state that, “The IFU is a grassroots member organization of family farmers and ranchers, advocates, and consumers committed to promoting family agriculture in Iowa,”… and they want their farms back.
Taxpayers look at first like they bridge the Environmental-Cornucopian Gap. But, since they’re money-driven their ideologies lie with Environmentalists— this time.
The Environmental Working Group describes a 1985 “conservation compact” between farmers and taxpayers aimed to reduce water pollution. This “conservation compact” created an agreement that farmers would prevent pollution and soil erosion in return for taxpayer investment in the form of farm subsidies.
Fast forward to present day and a lot of Iowan taxpayers don’t quite feel like they’re getting their end of the bargain. Taxpayers for Common Sense mentions that the USDA fails to regulate farms in conservation (which results in ⅔ of US farm failure in meeting USDA criteria for good nitrogen management, according to the Economic Research Service, at least. With taxpayers shelling out cash to farmers, assuming that nitrogen management is taken care of, it’s no surprise that a taxpayer group is a little peeved with farmers for not doing their thing and with regulators for enforcing the law. Taxpayers for Common Sense outlines complaints—blaming agriculture policies as a part of the problem.
Is water pollution really that big of a deal?
- The Iowa Department of Natural Resources water supplies of approximately 260 cities and towns.
- About 30% (of the 880 water systems) are very likely to be contaminated with nitrates/other pollutants.
- For citizens/taxpayers of Iowa to have safe water, they must remove nitrates.
- The Iowa Department of Natural Resources removes nitrates/pollutants from water.
- In 2011 (last year of data available) 4.8 billion taxpayer dollars were spent removing nitrates from public drinking water in the U.S. as a whole.
- The town of Des Moines, Iowa is being forced to spend at least 183 million dollars on new nitrate removal plants because of how poor water quality from due to harmful agricultural practices.
Be sure to go back and read Part 1— The Raw History of Corn and Conservation Agriculture Policy in Iowa!
Also— check out the next posts in the series! Find Part 3— What & Who are Cornucopian Stakeholders in Iowa’s Cornfields?,Part 4— Iowa’s Corn Policy-so-Far, and Part 5— Summary & Policy Recommendations for Corn in Iowa compiled in the Agriculture Policy Series tab!