Guest Columnists

Iowa Water Quality: Larger forces are at work

Michael Richards
Michael Richards

All industries chase money. In a free market, an industry would produce useful products or provide necessary services to achieve a profit. In our present economic/political hybrid powerful industries make campaign donations. Dutiful politicians then deliver subsidies, funding and tax advantages for politically preferred industries. This dysfunctional system of economic and political collusion is epitomized in Agriculture. Global ag biz giants set the rules of the game. Farmers obediently produce what they’re directed to through economic manipulation and political policy.

We pay farmers to produce polluted water as a byproduct of chemically driven mass mono-cropping. We get what we pay for and the cost is extremely high.

Water damaged by modern agriculture was already a serious problem. This has been amplified by the biofuel boom. The biofuel industry deploys political clout to control the playing field with market manipulation such as the Renewable Fuel Standard. The contrived demand for biofuel dramatically drove up the price that farmers get for corn. Farmers follow the money.

Farmers work hard to meet the demands of the biofuel market. As a result, farmers stripped out millions of acres of conservation buffers to plant more and more corn. In the past, these biomass buffers mitigated chemical runoff. More nitrogen nutrient flow now rushes into streams, increasing life damaging pollution. The ecological cost is immense.

Nitrogen from farms in Iowa and other states along the Mississippi River accumulate into a 6474 sq. mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico causing mass die-offs of marine life. The geographical scale of this ecological holocaust is comparable to rendering the ecology of one entire state a lifeless disaster zone. The stab of this injury cuts with a double edge sword; human health suffers with epidemic obesity and diabetes that result from the high calorie/low nutrition output of the processed food industry. Billions of dollars in health care costs rack up as collateral damage.

When actual costs and benefits of modern agriculture are measured, the present politically dictated management of land, water, labor and capital renders a huge net loss. Who gains from this economic fiasco? I assure you it’s not Iowa farmers. A recent front page headline in the Cedar Rapids Gazette states; “As Farming Profits Fade, Iowans Struggle to Break Even.” Slim margins induce farmers to get big or get out. Farm expansion and consolidation leads to massive debt, trapping farmers on a financial treadmill kept in motion by ag business political puppet masters.

A few global corporations bank billions from this economic and ecological disaster as they capture massive profits from fuel, chemicals and patented seed stock.


Such economic and ecological stupidity could not take place in a free-market economy where actual profit and loss would have real world consequences. In the present system, farmers are economic pawns. The few huge winners in this fixed game are not based in Iowa. Missouri’s big winner is Monsanto. Cargill’s luxurious lakeside corporate center is in Minnesota. ADM deposits immense profits in out of state banks from their headquarters in Illinois. The full productivity of Iowa’s rapidly depleting topsoil is literally washed downriver.

As long as corporate campaign contributions influence compliant members of Congress, your tax dollars will subsidize a system that operates with a huge net loss when we tally actual economic, health and ecological costs.

• Michael Richards is an entrepreneur and community activist who has lived in the Corridor for 20 years. He is a member of the Gazette Writers Circle. Comments:



As record numbers of students around the state participate in walkouts and other demonstrations against gun violence, we are urging local public schools not only to recognize the constitutionally-assured free speech rights of thei ...

For most children, childhood is filled with playing, learning and growing. But for the large number of children who face hunger, even basic staples like milk may be missing. Unfortunately, one in seven children in our community go ...

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.

Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.