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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Farm Chemotherapy: Exploitation vs. Stewardship Model

THE IOWA SOIL FERTILITY is some of the best and rarest in Earth’ biosphere.

And yet, Iowa agriculture now has to push chemical use to spur plant growth.  It is no longer enough to rely on the soil fertility.  Crop seeds that favor more bushels per acre are, of course favored.  It seems to make sense to produce as much as one can.  And having set the wheels in motion for highest production, crop production now requires the high production to economically sustain.  

Now unable to really claim any sense of land stewardship, modern Iowa agriculture is exploiting the landscape much like commercial ocean fishing does.  And in this exploitation, just as commercial fishing is depleting fish stock and shrinking the size of fish, Iowa agriculture is depleting soil fertility.  This exploitation [i.e., maximum out-take] while obvious is, paradoxically, so common as to be oblivious--not unlike the perception of fishing communities who oppose limits as impacting negatively economically.

Chemotherapy: This is now how farming is done.

Corn and soy production now require chemical additives such as nitrogen, phosphate, potash, lime, herbicide, pesticide and, increasingly, fungicide.

Data: How much Iowa chemo is being laid down?

In 2004, [Iowa Geological Survey, Technological Information Series 47, 2004] 
4 million tons (8 billion pounds) of nitrogen were applied, averaging perhaps 216 pounds/acre; and
240,000 tons (480 billion pounds) of phosphorus, averaging perhaps 13 pounds/acre.
And this rate has continued now for decades.

[other sources related to pesticides]: In 2014, Iowa farms applied herbicides on 95% of corn-planted acres, totaling 30 million pounds of material.  In addition, fungicide was applied to 19% of corn acres, insecticides on 13%.  

In 2015, Iowa farms applied herbicide on 93% of soy-planted acres, and insecticides on 25% and fungicides on 18%.

These chemicals have an impact on the bioregion itself from the micro-organisms on up the chain of life to human life.  The impact of this chemical usage is exacerbated by farming practices that wash the chemical into the watershed and leach it into the groundwater (aquifers) and “unglue” the soil structure in autumn with no cover crops to expedite release into the watershed.

Pesticides are present in untreated rural water wells and urban water treatment plants.  Lab research connects pesticides to medical disorders such as cancer, parkinson’s disease, thyroid disease, reproductive toxins.  In everyday life, when examining, for example, cancer in a farmer, it is difficult to link it to a pesticide.  Long-range impacts of persistent chemicals is also difficult to determine.
Nitrates and phosphates and pesticides are present in water treated for potable water.

Random pesticide/human data as examples: One water treatment plant in NE Missouri may spend $130,000 to remove atrazine [pesticide].  In 1988/1989, rural water wells were tested form 27 different pesticide.  Eleven were detected as well as 5 other chemical that result from pesticide breakdown.  One or more pesticides were detected in nearly 14% of wells tested.  The effect on health is unclear.

There are other chemical also present in the water such as antibiotics and hormones.

Farm chemotherapy is now consistently present every year, and it is accepted practice that costs farmers.  In Ag Mag, June 9, 2015, Anne Weir Schechinger sketches the conclusion of a 2/17/2015 article in the journal Environmental Research Letters which argues that environmental health problems caused just bey nitrogen pollution cost the public 2 times the value of the $76.7 billion total value of corn produced for grain in the Untied States in 2011 when prices for corn were high ($157 billion in nitrogen pollution damage to human health).  There is some concern that these figures are low because, for example, they do not figure in higher discharges in autumn when nitrogen is not used by plants and with no cover crops is subject to more release.  I would speculate that it is difficult to directly measure impact on health in accurate health dollars.  However, what is important here is that there is a huge economic cost to the United States in public health costs from the voluminous use of nitrogen, not to mention, other fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and animal waste.  And Iowa agriculture contributes disproportionately higher in ag chemical release.  For example the nitrogen stream load from Iowa is estimated to be equivalent to 20% of the long-term nitrogen load carried by the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Iowa agriculture gripes about a lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works.  In the future, Iowa agriculture or the state of Iowa could be presented with lawsuits from Gulf states.

Iowa chemotherapy does remarkable COSTLY damage to the Iowa environment and Iowa public health and contributes to downstream issues all the way into the Gulf of Mexico.  

Interestingly, Iowa’s 4 million annual tons of nitrogen that is applied to Iowa farmland is a small part of the 131 million tons of ammonia produced globally annually.  The United States produces 6%, with China producing 32%, India 8.9%, Russia 7.9%, etc., with 80% of this global production used to fertilize crops.

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