New Report: Iowa Losing Topsoil at Alarming Rate

(No worries, it's just priceless Iowa topsoil. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

A new report, which includes video images, shows that across wide swaths of Iowa our rich, dark agricultural soil is being swept away at alarming rates, which in some areas are 12 times higher than average soil loss estimates from national studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.

More after the jump …

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Francis Thicke's "New Vision for Food and Agriculture" in Iowa

Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Francis Thicke is touring the state to talk about his just-published book, “A New Vision for Food and Agriculture.” He’s scheduled to speak in Oskaloosa on June 29, Marion on June 30, Storm Lake on July 1, Dubuque on July 6 and Mason City on July 13. All events are at 6:30 pm; click here for location details.

Thicke provides a brief outline of his vision on his campaign website:

   * Encourage the installation of farmer-owned, mid-size wind turbines on farms all across Iowa, to power farms, and help to power the rest of Iowa. I will lead in advocating feed-in tariffs, which are agreements with power companies that will allow farmers to sell their excess power, finance their turbines, and make a profit from their power generation.

   * Make Iowa farms more energy self-sufficient and put more biofuel profits in farmers’ pockets by refocusing Iowa’s biofuel investment on new technologies that will allow farmers to produce biofuels on the farm to power farm equipment, and sell the excess for consumer use.

   * Create more jobs and economic development by supporting local food production. We can grow more of what we eat in Iowa. Locally-grown food can be fresher, safer and healthier for consumers, and will provide jobs to produce it. I will reestablish the Iowa Food Policy Council to provide guidance on how to connect farmers to state institutional food purchases and greater access to consumer demand for fresh, locally-grown produce.

   * Expose predatory practices by corporate monopolies. We need Teddy Roosevelt-style trust busting to restore competition to agricultural markets. I will work with Iowa’s Attorney General and the Justice Department to ensure fair treatment for farmers.

   * Reestablish local control over CAFOs, and regulate them to keep dangerous pollutants out of our air and water, and protect the health, quality of life, and property values of our citizens.

   * Promote wider use of perennial and cover crops to keep Iowa’s rich soils and fertilizer nutrients from washing into our rivers.

Not only is Thicke highly qualified to implement this vision, he walks the walk, as you can see from a brief video tour of his dairy farm.

Near the beginning of that clip, Thicke observes, “Energy is a big issue in agriculture. We are highly dependent upon cheap oil if you look at agriculture almost anywhere in this country. And that’s one of the big issues in my campaign: how we can make agriculture more energy self-sufficient, make our landscape more resilient, and make our agriculture more efficient as well.” It’s sad that our current secretary of agriculture has shown no leadership on making this state’s farm economy more self-sufficient. Using renewable energy to power Iowa farm operations isn’t pie in the sky stuff: it’s technologically feasible and is a “common-sense way” to cut input costs.

I highly recommend going to hear Thicke speak in person, but you can listen online in some of the videos available on Thicke’s YouTube channel. The campaign is on Facebook here and on the web at Thickeforagriculture.com. If you want to volunteer for or help his campaign in any way, e-mail Thicketeam AT gmail.com. Here’s his ActBlue page for those who can make a financial contribution.

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Iowa & Mississippi: Not the connection some have been talking about

A lot of discussion has been centering on Roxanne Conlin's historic bid to become Iowa's first female elected to the U.S. Senate.  Iowa has never elected a woman to Congress and we share that distinction with just one other state – Mississippi.

Yet, this isn't the only connection between Iowa and our friends to the south in Mississippi.  The other is water, and the issue that is beginning to get more attention as people focus on the Gulf oil spill is hypoxia.

Hypoxia or oxygen depletion is a phenomenon that occurs in aquatic environments as dissolved oxygen (DO; molecular oxygen dissolved in the water) becomes reduced in concentration to a point detrimental to aquatic organisms living in the system. Dissolved oxygen is typically expressed as a percentage of the oxygen that would dissolve in the water at the prevailing temperature and salinity (both of which affect the solubility of oxygen in water; see oxygen saturation and underwater). An aquatic system lacking dissolved oxygen (0% saturation) is termed anaerobic, reducing, or anoxic; a system with low concentration—in the range between 1 and 30% saturation—is called hypoxic or dysoxic. Most fish cannot live below 30% saturation. A “healthy” aquatic environment should seldom experience less than 80%. The exaerobic zone is found at the boundary of anoxic and hypoxic zones

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Update on the Leopold Center's director search

Last month I posted about the controversy surrounding the search for a new director of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. University officials offered the job to Frank Louws, a plant pathologist in North Carolina, although the search committee preferred Ricardo Salvador, the program director for the Kellogg Foundation’s Food, Health and Wellbeing program. Salvador is a corn expert and displayed a more “holistic perspective” about sustainable agriculture, which is probably why the Iowa Farm Bureau had expressed a preference for Louws. ISU’s Dean of Agriculture Wendy Wintersteen informed Salvador that he would not get the position before Louws had accepted the job. Typically, employers wait until they have a deal with their top candidate before telling other finalists that they didn’t get the job.

For about two months, Louws neither accepted nor declined the offer to head the Leopold Center. Meanwhile, ISU President Greg Geoffroy denied that he had been influenced by the Farm Bureau, saying he had followed “very strong advice” from Wintersteen and ISU’s Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth Hoffman. In the sustainable agriculture community, many people believe industrial agriculture interests influenced Wintersteen’s and Hoffman’s recommendation.

In any event, Louws has declined ISU’s job offer, the Ames Tribune reported yesterday. Wintersteen said North Carolina State University made him “a generous counter offer,” and Louws decided not to uproot his family.

According to the Ames Tribune, Geoffroy “advised [Wintersteen] to call Salvador back for a second interview” after Louws turned down the Leopold Center job. That interview has not yet been scheduled.

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Another study finds link between atrazine and birth defects

Yet another study has found that exposure to the weed-killer atrazine is associated with a higher rate of a birth defect:

Living near farms that use the weed killer atrazine may up the risk of a rare birth defect, according to a study presented this past Friday [February 5] at the annual meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in Chicago.

About 1 in 5000 babies born in the U.S. each year suffers from gastroschisis, in which part of the intestines bulges through a separation in the belly, according to the March of Dimes. The rate of gastroschisis has risen 2- to 4-fold over the last three decades, according to Dr. Sarah Waller, of the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues. […]

The researchers looked at more than 4,400 birth certificates from 1987-2006 – including more than 800 cases of gastroschisis — and U.S. Geological Survey databases of agricultural spraying between 2001 and 2006.

Using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards to define high chemical exposure levels in surface water, they found that the closer a mother lived to a site of high surface water contamination by atrazine, the more likely she was to deliver an infant with gastroschisis.

The birth defect occurred more often among infants who lived less than 25 km (about 15 miles) from one of these sites, and it occurred more often among babies conceived between March and May, when agricultural spraying is common.

A separate study published last year in the medical journal Acta Paediatrica compared monthly concentrations of “nitrates, atrazine and other pesticides” in the U.S. water supply with birth defect rates over a seven-year period. The researchers found, “Elevated concentrations of agrichemicals in surface water in April-July coincided with higher risk of birth defects in live births with [last menstrual periods in] April-July.” The association was found for “eleven of 22 birth defect subcategories” as well as for birth defects as a whole.

The European Union banned atrazine in 2003 because of groundwater contamination, but tens of millions of pounds of the chemical are still sprayed on American farms. It has been proven to enter the water supply and is correlated with increased rates of breast and prostate cancers.

During the Bush administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintained that atrazine had no detrimental effects in humans. But in a policy shift last October, the EPA announced that it would ask the independent Scientific Advisory Panel to conduct a thorough scientific review of atrazine’s “potential cancer and non-cancer effects on humans,” including “its potential association with birth defects, low birth weight, and premature births.” The panel will also evaluate research on “atrazine’s potential effects on amphibians and aquatic ecosystems.” Conventional agriculture groups aren’t waiting for the results of the review; they are already lobbying the EPA not to restrict or ban the use of atrazine.

I’d have more respect for the “pro-life” movement if they supported restrictions on chemicals that threaten babies in the womb. I don’t think I have ever heard an anti-abortion activist railing against atrazine or pesticides that can cause spontaneous abortions, though.

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Thicke warns of excessive concentration in agriculture

The Justice Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture have been accepting public comments in advance of a series of workshops on “competition and regulatory issues in the agriculture industry.” The first workshop is scheduled for March 12 in Ankeny.

Francis Thicke, a dairy farmer and Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture, submitted this comment to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division. Excerpt:

Economists tell us that when four firms control 40% or more of a market, that market loses its competitive nature. Currently, four firms control 83.5% of the beef packer market; four firms control 66% of the pork packer market; four firms control 58.5% of the broiler market. The turkey, flour milling, seed, and other agricultural markets are similarly concentrated.

The anticompetitive effects of market concentration is further compounded by the fact that some of the top four firms in each market category are also among the top four in other markets. For example, Tyson is number one in beef packing, number two in pork packing, and number two in broilers. This kind of horizontal integration encourages firms that dominate in several markets to manipulate prices in order to increase their market share. For example, when beef and broiler prices are profitable, a firm with dominant market share in beef, broilers, and pork can take measures to prolong the unprofitability of the pork market in order to force out firms that deal only in pork-while maintaining its own firm’s overall profitability through the beef and broiler market sectors.

A good current example of the farm-level effects of market concentration is the milk market. Recently, dairy farmers have been experiencing record losses due to low farm-gate milk prices. At the same time, the largest dairy processor, Dean Foods-that is purported to control 40% of U.S. dairy processing-has posted record profits over the past two quarters. Clearly, Dean Foods has found a modus operandi that enables it to isolate itself from the market forces bearing on dairy farmers.

I am glad to see Thicke raise this issue, which affects the well-being of so many family farmers. I do not recall Iowa’s current Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey or his predecessor Patty Judge sounding the alarm about excessive concentration in the agriculture industry. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.

Last month the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering released a report on consolidation in the seed industry, which has left farmers with “fewer choices and significantly higher prices in seed.” You can read more about that report at La Vida Locavore and Iowa Independent.

Blog for Iowa recently published a lengthy interview with Thicke that is worth reading. Here are the links to part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.

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