Wrong assumptions

BY ART CULLEN

Not to be misunderstood: We appreciate that Gov. Terry Branstad is trying to do something to promote water quality in Iowa. His plan to skim $4.7 billion from school sales taxes over coming decades and devote it to water quality enhancement at least gives us a foundation from which we can have a discussion — just as the Des Moines Water Works did when it filed a federal lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties over nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River by drainage districts.

This week Branstad released a study by top economists from the highly respected Center for Agriculture and Rural Development at Iowa State University showing that his plan would create $691 million in economic activity and 2,800 jobs annually if certain prescribed watershed practices were built and maintained.

We have a few problems with the assumptions.

It is wrongly assumed that we need to spend $4.7 billion — actually, more like $15 billion when you factor in federal and private cost-shares — to clean up our nitrate problem. We did not have a nitrate problem when he had a 10% acreage set-aside under the federal farm program using the same basic cropping practices. If we devoted 10% of Iowa’s row-crop acres to pasture or other grassland practices we would eliminate the problem. That is but one solution that would not necessarily cost anyone money, but might increase economic activity by increasing corn, ethanol and livestock prices.

Which leads to our other problem with assumptions: that sustainable agricultural practices do not inherently have economic value, which in fact they do. Rotational grazing improves soil and livestock health, which confers economic benefits. Planting sweet sorghum near rivers and drainage ditches sucks up surplus soil moisture in spring and fall that otherwise would carry nitrogen to the river. Plus, sweet sorghum has far higher value as an ethanol feedstock than corn. Farmers could make more per acre by grazing cattle or planting sweet sorghum on hills and vales than they could by riding bean buggies through a soy field spraying petrochemicals.

The CARD economists, ag folks at heart, base their economic assessment of the Branstad plan on a scientific advisory panel to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The scientists are all from the ag-industrial wing funded by Monsanto and Dow Chemical. So as to not interrupt business patterns, the recommendation is essentially to re-engineer the watershed so that we might continue our existing row-crop practices. For example, the economists describe one potential solution they were not able to model: actually trying to manage the water table by drainage inflow and outflow devices. It was our engineering of the watershed that led to the nitrate problem in the first place, which is why drainage districts are being sued.

Other remedies include bioreactors, wetland conversions, cover crops and the like. Which is all good, until you consider that shallow lakes in Northwest Iowa are being converted to marshes to help filter ag runoff. We cannot build enough bioreactors and marshes to farm as intensively as we are at a cost we can afford — whether you are a farmer, a landlord or an urban taxpayer.

If the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU had developed the nutrient strategy, the economic analysis no doubt would be different. Funding for the institute is all but eliminated.

As we have said for many years, we have been throwing money at soil and water conservation for nearly a century, but it keeps getting worse. That’s because we plow through the fencelines, all over the river bottoms and into the ditches. Every acre must be maximized for corn and its nitrogen-fixing alternate, soybeans.

We have legislated away any control over the agri-industrial complex that lives off natural resource depletion and pollution. Everything must be voluntary. Hence, Iowa has lost creek buffers, pasture and in-field grass strips since 2009. The costs are assessed to the City of Storm Lake and State of Iowa in dredging bills and to the Des Moines Water Works for its nitrate-removal system.

The water works has discovered that stewardship cannot be purchased. It must be litigated. The utility’s principal aim is to make non-point source pollution (ag runoff) subject to permitted regulation under the Clean Water Act. If regulation were imposed (as it was in pre-Earl Butz farm bills) markets would figure out how to allocate resources. Let the markets decide how to react — farmers and landowners consulting with agronomists on how best to meet the regulatory framework. Some might want to meet those goals with bioreactors, some with a cow-calf herd on marginal rolling acres, some by planting non-corn ethanol crops near creeks or other flow points. Farmers will innovate, and the early adapters will make the most profit.

Trying to purchase a solution through sales taxes fails to consider what economic benefit might be gained by using that money to teach children. A Democratic House member wants to use commodity checkoff funds to help provide the solution.

The cleanest solution is to comply with the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit is the most effective way to induce markets to change the way our landscape has been engineered and mined by agri-industry. It will shift the burden to where it belongs: with the interests who profit from intensive row-crop agriculture with confined livestock. There should be no reason that the poor denizens of Des Moines should be paying to prop up the existing agri-industrial model founded on fossil fuels. We need to take the next step to a more profitable future based on sustainable practices.