Editorial: Reaching our limits 


Iowa has 25 million hogs, best we know, producing enough sewage akin to a human population of 125 million. To feed those hogs, we cultivate 92% of the state’s acres to grow corn and soybeans, the most of any state. Along with Illinois, we are contributing the most to the slow death of the Gulf of Mexico from suffocation by excess nitrogen fertilizer. We kill the weeds with cancer-causing chemicals to grow the corn that feeds the hogs that pollute the rivers, and it is an article of faith that there is nothing we can do about it. If we have to kill the village to feed it, the Lord’s will be done. 

Markets have become the divine arbiter, the legislature their high priests. The markets say the Chinese need bacon, so by God we will provide it in spades. We will plow up every last inch for more corn. We apply anhydrous ammonia because the chemical preacher sayeth so, along with hog and chicken manure in abundance and without interference, because the courts have ruled emphatically that there is no way to regulate what we engendered in our quest to dominate the land like no place ever has been since Moses came down with The Book. 

Since World War II and the conversion of agriculture into a chemically driven industry, when Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson encouraged us to plant fencerow to fencerow, it has been a tale of decline for communities and farmers. Yields are up. Pork production is running at full tilt. We have half as many farmers. Nemaha is a shadow of itself. The Raccoon River is toxic with runoff, inorganic and organic. The manure is full of drugs fed to the livestock and is spread in ponds by the tankers running down the rows. 

The data, reported by Tom Cullen and Karina Guerrero in The Storm Lake Times, document that the proliferation of livestock in Northwest Iowa over the past 20 years is largely responsible for the persistent pollution of the Floyd and Raccoon rivers. The legislature set it up so that nobody could keep track of the confinements or their manure plans. The state confined feeding coordinator was eliminated. Inspection occurs on complaint. That is how it is intended. There are no limits on how many hogs can come in. They just keep coming. In the past month, manure plans for three new confinements have been filed in Buena Vista County. 

We cannot handle this load. 

Our underground drinking aquifers are in decline from livestock production and processing, and water-intensive ethanol production that provide limited returns to the communities that depend on that water, like Storm Lake. The Des Moines Water Works is drilling wells into aquifers because the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers are toxic. Friends who fish won’t eat a northern pike out of the Little Sioux River. 

This was all foreseen more than 70 years ago by native Iowan Aldo Leopold, who predicted that all our chemicals and engineering would destroy us as we destroyed the land. He suggested in a key 1949 essay, The Land Ethic, while at the University of Wisconsin that we develop conservation agriculture as our ethos. Everything he suggested came true: the rivers have lost their former lives, the soil is washing down them, and in dominating the landscape we diminish ourselves. He suggested that we live as citizens of the land rather than over it. 

Stewardship is a word that deeply resonates with Iowans. It speaks to our sense of authority by dint of reason, and it suggests a responsibility to live within limits. The agricultural industrial complex, tightly intertwined by chemistry to the military one (DuPont/Pioneer, for example), from Benson to the Dulleses to Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, evangelized a gospel of markets that leaves farmer, laborer, land and community as assets to be exploited. That is what has happened in Iowa. 

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to return to an ethos that can sustain us. The conversation is changing to how we can live with the land. Corn yields and pork production have increased fantastically over the past half-century. Yet we have demeaned ourselves in the process. Reducing cultivated acreage through conservation payment is the simple answer to increasing commodity prices and halting unsustainable livestock production and processing in saturated Northwest Iowa. That conversation is taking shape in Washington right now as the world comes to grips with climate emergency and agricultural resiliency. Leopold’s Land Ethic has a chance, and it could bring back so much that has died from an anti-life system built for the profit of a few, taken from the many. We’ve known the answers since the days of Henry Wallace and Aldo Leopold, but our natural zeal took us off the right path. Farmers all over Iowa are finding that path again by adapting sustainable practices as they can. Iowa is incapable of solving this problem left to its own rituals. We need Washington’s help to get back to feeding ourselves in a way that will not deprive us. That should be the mission we pursue. 

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