Agriculture and conservation

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By Bob Watson


In the Des Moines Register’s recent series on the dead zone in the Gulf, corporate agriculture apologists repeated their excuses for not addressing agriculture’s major role in the pollution causing that dead zone. According to apologists, most erosion and pollution from Iowa may not really be from the 30 million acres of farmland in Iowa. That pollution might be from a few hundred golf courses, some urban lawns and regulated wastewater treatment plants.

We also heard that regulations don’t work in agriculture, and that farmers should be allowed to pollute because they feed the world. That farmers are conservationists who already work to limit runoff, erosion and pollution.

Pollution from wastewater plants (point source pollution) has actually declined due to ever more stringent regulations. Meanwhile the waters of Iowa and the Gulf continue to become more polluted with each passing year due to non-point source pollution from ag. Understanding this phenomenon, the EPA directed states to come up with strategies to reduce that pollution.

After some years of study, Iowa’s strategy is contained in the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy” document. The extent to which corporations have taken over our government, as shown by this document, should give us pause.

Technically, many of the promoted practices have little real ability to deal with runoff, erosion and pollution on the scale that is seen. And, this strategy ends up being just another “we wish the farmers would do” list because the document contains no “implementation instrument” to ensure adoption.

The question whether any strategy can fix this recently adopted petro/chemical/industrial model of agriculture is not even asked. This recent model is extraction based, petroleum based and inherently polluting.

Research presented at this year’s U.S. and Canadian Great Lakes Conference suggests no-till may be causing new dead zones in the Great Lakes. If so, this would be a major blow to this model’s no-till being promoted as a conservation method.

An “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy” is necessary only if we assume we will keep using this inherently polluting petro/chemical/industrial model of agriculture. We don’t need to. There are models of agriculture which exist today (edible perennial prairie, forage crops, prairie buffer strips, etc.), that can clean up our water, reduce erosion, runoff, and pollution, and that are biologically benign and clean.

Go to and click on appendix D to see models that exist today, that can be adopted wholesale today, and that will return agriculture to a non-polluting, non-flooding, soil-building system adaptable to both a future of intense rain events and major droughts.

Bob Watson is a wastewater industry professional, activist and business owner from Decorah. Comments: boband

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