In late summer, I would swim and stream-walk a small section of the Raccoon River. While sedimented for decades now, the water was clear in the shallows. For a few years now, the water is pea-green from edge-to-edge. For decades and worse now, this water has strongly contributed to a vast hypoxia zone in the Gulf.

In the 1980s, I wrote about the wisdom of the river, focusing on the Des Moines River as a living, very open metaphor for the essential streaming dynamic of the universe that is within us as well in the streaming of our body metabolism and thought.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Iowa: Not The Breadbasket Of The World, Part Two

See earlier post: Iowa: Not The Breadbasket Of The World, Part One, 10/10/16

IN A VERY REAL WAY, Iowa may be one of the richest and rarest  breadbaskets in the world, but it is not the breadbasket FOR the world.  ‘For the world’ and “Feeding The World’: BOGUS, Bogus, bogus...

Why Part Two?

Craig Lang, “Iowa View: Agriculture Is A Global Market, Des Moines Register, 10.20/16, responds to a DSM Register editorial “Don’t expect Iowa farmers to ‘feed the world,’ 10/10/1, that suggested that Iowa does not feed the world.  He suggests that this might leave farmers with a sense that that they are not doing things “for the greater good.”  

This is confusing hyperbole: Accurately, Iowa does not feed the world but that does not imply that Iowa agriculture is not for the greater good.  Iowa agriculture is not out to destroy the world or keep the ag products from the world.  Agricultural interests come from around the world to explore the technological advances that are operant in Iowa and ag products go out across the world but primary to markets that can afford them.

The bias is not with the Register but with the this Iowa Ag view.

This blog, Iowa Water, focuses primarily on the water quality issues rather than on the global reach of Iowa agriculture.  However, the nobility of feeding the world can contribute to an idea that, morally, Iowa should do all it can to mass produce agricultural products in order to feed the world.  Accordingly, agriculture should be even more industrialized to serve a moral obligation to the world.  Related to water quality, this makes water quality a very secondary priority to feeding the world, and this misses the moral responsibility to enhance rather than deplete the water and soil quality to the point of degrading the ten thousand year old soil fertility and public health.   If Iowa agriculture truly did feed the world, then this might be more of a moral imperative that would outweigh degrading the landscape and public health.  But Iowa feeding the world is a myth vs. a reality, and more chemicals and soil loss and rapid crop recycling and seed design to increase plant density and seed production cannot keep increasing without damaging even the quality of the “breadbasket” that allows for intense exploitation.


Agreed, farming is modern and not an age-old system, and that fact makes it both positive and negative.  It is new tech with an old myth.  The idea of Iowa feeding the world is a myth and that myth is dangerous.  It keeps us from doing exactly what we say we are doing which is “feeding the world.”  What we are doing is outsourcing all we can to a global market, but it is really not feeding the human world.  It goes to ethanol and to animal feed and base products such as fructose.
The argument is offered that Iowa feeds the world in two ways: (1) In underdeveloped nations, the production of more generic products and lower prices in good seasons allow the local populations to focus their farming on local nutritional needs; and (2) in developed countries, generic products, such as soy meal for pigs in China basically upgraded food options.  This latter Chinese example might insult and mask the impact of a much vaster and very rapid improvement of the Chinese economy.  Guess what.  The Chinese would have been enjoying pork with no big problem due to these vster changes.  

Correctly, Iowa agriculture does affect/impact the global ag price market.  And when we produce more, we (to our economic disadvantage lower prices) increase access to these commodities.

Applying high technology to poor fertility landscapes around Earth may damage rather than improve sustainability.  

The ag research that is oriented best toward various global landscapes/bioregions tends to be university- and governmental-based.  This type of research often challenges ag industry research as well as farming practices even in Iowa.  For example, three- or four-year seasonal crop rotation does not fit well with corn-soy-corn-soy in Iowa, but it has much to do with sustainability of soil fertility and water quality in Iowa.  This type of research is not for profit, and it can focus on authentic world hunger in places like Somalia that are not a market for mass purchasing of Iowa commodities.  And this type of research that is modern might come best from nations such as Israel  that have related soil fertility issues.

Overall, Iowa is a global market.  But Iowa is not feeding the globe.  And the type of agriculture practiced in Iowa is not in a unique position to feed the world or even design for various technologies to feed the various, often poorer soil fertility conditions that are present throughout most of the world.  

To great credit, Iowa agriculture has appropriately moved from age-old local systems of farming that were the only options to improved agricultural methods that can deal much more effectively with farming risks such as weather and pests to assure for more stability year in and year out.  And this has influenced more ag research and allowed for more stability in carrying forward agriculture in all of its forms.

To its discredit, Iowa agriculture clings to myths that can allow it to become exploitive.  It has taken an industrialized turn so that the idea of an “Iowa farmer” is no longer one of a steward of the land as the first priority.  It is high-volume competition as the priority if the farmer is to sustain, but it is a blow to the sustainability of the landscape.  Modern Iowa farming would not be possible without the ten-thousand year soil bank and water conditions.  Modern Iowa farming is shooting itself in the foot and it is affecting public health.

It is interesting that to fix water quality issues, the hot new focus is on taxation to fix the farm (with very low targets of change that will not fix the water, even if all the farmers were committed) and no mention of funding for water treatment that users of those services will have to also fund, and increasingly fund things like mitigating the nitrates and phosphates that are removed.  The treatment plants are REQUIRED to meet specific standards, but the farmers have no requirements, either in release of chemicals and soil or in initial amount of chemical input into fields.   And there are water treatment services in Iowa that simply cannot afford to meet standards now. 

The myth of Iowa ‘feeding the world’ “mitigates” the almost total absence of the other myth of ‘stewardship‘ that is largely impossible and meaningless in the face of the farmer’s dilemma of making enough profit to “sustain” farming another season.  It becomes much more ‘take‘ than ‘put back.‘   Modern Iowa agriculture is exploitation of the landscape vs. stewardship of the landscape.  If you use the term “sustainability,” which implies stability across the long run, exploitation is clear and indisputable. 

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