Silvia Secchi is a Professor in the Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences at the University of Iowa.
Chris Jones is a Research Engineer at IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa.
This two-section essay (each of us communicating our own perspectives) outlines some of our thoughts on Iowa water quality within the context of production agriculture, and why we are beginning a regular podcast on this topic.
The main reason I meandered into the podcast with Dr. Jones is that, since I have come back to Iowa four years ago, I have realized how distorted the narrative around agriculture is in the state. Not only is it distorted, it is often not logical or consistent.
The kind of farming prevalent in Iowa is heavily subsidized in multiple ways. At least two ways are direct, through subsidies, via the crop insurance program (and before, direct payments), which creates incentives to produce more fossil-fuel intensive and polluting crops, and then via conservation payments, where taxpayers subsidize farmers to clean up the pollution they have paid to generate.
Most of the environmental costs of CAFO livestock production and conventional crop production are also socialized, in the sense that farmers are not responsible for the air and water quality degradation they cause. We bear those costs directly in terms of reduced quality of life, impaired health, and environmental degradation.
Yet, when we hear about farmers, we are told they are “stewards of the land.” If that is the case, why do we have to pay them to pollute less? And why are there many farmers not interested in adopting conservation practices even with substantial subsidies?
Farmers are presented as victims of the system, while in truth Iowa farmers in particular are represented by one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, which has successfully blocked any meaningful action to address pollution (including climate change) for decades. Farmers’ organizations have for decades denied climate change is man-made, but are now clamoring to sell carbon “offsets,” which would be another way to subsidize marginal changes to our fundamentally unsustainable system.
This hypocrisy has become even more untenable as farmers have shrunk as a percentage of Iowa’s population (less than 3 percent). According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, in our Heartland region, the 2021 forecast is for a net farm income of $161,000 (was $109,000 last year). This is at least in part due the heavily subsidized nature of our production system. Iowa is in fact the largest recipient of federal agricultural subsidies.
It is true that few farmers are the biggest beneficiaries of the current policies, but even the small landowner-only farmers, who have an average farm size of 139 acres according to USDA, own over a $1 million in land assets given the latest farmland values from Iowa State University. The owner-renters, who farm over 20 million acres, on average own over 285 acres (and rent and get subsidies, on average, on over 460 acres). That means that on average they own over $2.1 million in land assets. In contrast, median household annual income in Iowa was 60,523 and per capita income $32,176. And 99.6 percent of Iowa farmers are white.
As our water quality progressively worsens, despite the hundreds of millions of taxpayer money spent on conservation, and large parts of rural Iowa continue to lose population, Iowa farmers have largely been insulated (or in fact benefited) from trade wars and the pandemic. This is not, however, what you hear in discussions about agricultural policy. As a public employee with expertise on these issues, it is part of my service mandate to speak to Iowans and beyond about what the reality on the ground truly is.
In doing so, I am inspired by T. W. Schultz, who was chased out of Iowa State University (coincidentally my alma mater) by the dairy lobby for sharing with the public through a pamphlet that it made sense to consume margarine instead of butter during WWII, when butter was twice as expensive and the dairy industry forbade the sale of yellow margarine, so as to make it look less palatable (you can read about the story here and here). On September 24, 1943, in a letter to the Des Moines Register on his way out, Schultz wrote,
If the people of Iowa believe, as I think they do, that the most serious problems affecting their welfare over the next few decades lie in the fields of economics, governance and social organization, they have a strong interest in having the results of unbiased, timely and courageous research in the social sciences. […] It is especially the social sciences -economics, sociology and political science -which, if prosecuted with vigor reveal answers which are unpalatable to special interests.
Professor Schultz used the media technology at his disposal at the time – pamphlets and letters to the paper of record – to make sure Iowans were transparently informed about special interests and who was benefiting from agricultural policies. The podcast is our way to reach out to those interested in an honest assessment about the state of our environment. It builds on the unparalleled scientific and institutional knowledge of Dr. Jones (whose blog you should definitely read).
In fact, the name of the podcast, We All Want Clean Water, is inspired by one of Dr. Jones’s blogs. Since we have realized the importance of interdisciplinarity and convergence, the podcast also brings a social scientist (me) and a chemist together to offer different perspectives. Oh, and let’s not forget – the podcast offers Dr. Jones and myself (and Dr. David Cwiertny, who is advising us all along) an opportunity to spend time together to think about important stuff. Since we like to banter and are passionate about these issues, you can rest assured this will not just be a couple of old codger academics blathering.
Join us! Our first topic is “What is lost and what isn’t.”
I grew up here in Iowa in a family of modest means, and saw very little of our state that you couldn’t see from the highways between Ankeny (our home) and Knoxville (my grandparents’ home). I loved fishing then as I do now, then mostly with my grandfathers, one uncle, and a couple of cousins, and only occasionally my dad, who could take it or leave it.
I recall fishing with my grandad from country-road bridge over White Breast Creek in Marion County before Red Rock Lake was filled by the Corps of Engineers, which inundating the lower reaches of that watershed. In my memory we had a stringer of bullheads hanging from the bridge into the stream, and as we left to go, I pulled up the stringer, which held only the fish heads. A snapping turtle had eaten lunch on us.
The water was bad back then, but I didn’t know it, because I had no reference point, no comparisons. Since that time, I’ve been to every state except Alaska, South Carolina, and Delaware, and I can tell you, our water here in Iowa is still not good. In many ways, it has degraded further.
Sure, there are some success stories here and there. The Clean Water Act (1972) did improve Iowa streams, mainly by reducing the amount of aquatic-life-killing ammonia and organic material discharged into Iowa streams from municipal and industrial wastewater effluents. The intensity of soil tillage is less now than in my childhood, improving water clarity. Several harsh pesticides have been made unnecessary through genetic modification of crops.
But diversity on the Iowa landscape is probably at its low point. Two species reign—corn and soy. Livestock have been moved into confined production systems, freeing up more land for cultivation of the King and his sidekick. Pasture is about gone. Oats and other crops are gone. Riparian areas along streams are mostly gone. Country road ditches look like Ankeny lawns. Our streams seem to be either manic and muddy or depressed and blue-green. Either way, they help kill part of an ocean 1,500 miles away.
Three things about this story drive me to do what I do. The first is that we have the capacity and know-how to fix it. But we don’t because the present production systems can’t exist in their current formulation without a license to degrade our lakes, streams, and aquifers. I very likely will enter and leave this earth without water quality in Iowa ever having been good or even adequate by most standards, all because we prioritized economic returns for a few over the integrity of our natural environment.
The second thing that drives me is the constant industry gaslighting that tells us, in the words of Orwell, to “reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.” This gaslighting works because few living Iowans know what our lakes and streams could look like—intricate systems of desirable species supported by a diversity of terrestrial and aquatic habitats. We could have water resources that fit that description; in fact, we have a few in Northeast Iowa that come close. But as we have seen recently with the Supreme Beef/Bloody Run Creek episode, where agriculture is demanding to house and feed 11,000 beef cattle at the headwaters of one of our only streams with remaining biological integrity, the industry does not share this goal.
The last reason I write my essays, and why I will do the podcast, is the almost complete absence of political will in either party to forcefully address the state’s environmental condition. What we see on our landscape does not happen without the complicity of both political parties. It’s a moral failure of our government. This can’t be changed without the willingness of informed people to talk about it.
And that is where this collaboration with Silvia begins. I’ve known her for a long time, but I’ve known her well for only about four years. I don’t know if she insists on calling me Dr. Jones out of respect or because she is a Harrison Ford fan. It doesn’t matter to me. We both have our own shtick and I’m sure the sum will be greater than the parts. We both want Iowa to be better and hopefully this endeavor will create some “exciting momentum” toward that end.
Top photo of the Mississippi River near Lansing, Iowa and DeSoto, Wisconsin provided by Chris Jones and published with permission.