The firm grip of the agri-chemical complex extends to the very roots of Iowa, so it should come as no surprise that one of its proprietors appears to be on a fast track to the presidency of Iowa State University.
ISU College of Agriculture Dean Wendy Wintersteen is among four finalists who conducted on-campus interviews last week. The Board of Regents, appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad and led by agri-industrialist Bruce Rastetter until recently, will select a president from among the four. The other three have top-level administrative experience. Wintersteen has baggage.
She stood by and watched as the university and Legislature conspired to weaken, and then kill, the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State. That was unconscionable. The dean of the ag college should have laid on the railroad tracks to stop the freight train. She waved as it went past.
As well she might. Wintersteen serves the board of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, which represents the seed and chemical industry and runs this state. The AAI and Doug Gross, Branstad’s former chief of staff, created a bottomless pit of dark money to lavish on Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties to defend themselves from a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works. The AAI in conspiracy with the counties violated Iowa public records law by refusing to release to the public a list of donors who fed the dark money account. They continue to stand in violation of the law for refusing to release the donors who fed the $1.4 million account until the counties divorced themselves from the AAI, at the demand of the Storm Lake Times and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.
Wintersteen has set back sustainability.
She has built opacity around the college of agriculture and its association with corporate paymasters.
That she is a finalist is emblematic of how we have ceded our franchise as a state to players in St. Louis, Wichita, Kan., and Delaware. The Koch Brothers and Monsanto and Dow DuPont own Iowa State, the governor’s office and the Board of Regents. They will do anything to make certain they can do business in whatever way they like, no matter the cost. Anything like a center for sustainable agriculture, which actually might show farmers how to save soil while building financial wealth outside the Monsanto-Dow DuPont circle of influence, cannot be allowed to stand.
Eminent and tenured scientists are acutely aware not to stray from the line about the voluntary nutrient reduction standard, which has not reduced nutrient outflows. That would suggest fewer acres of corn to plant on the hills and fewer bushels yet to feed to hogs raised in hoghouses so thickly populated that the state cannot even count them all. Or to ethanol plants that are sucking the Jordan aquifer dry. The faculty is nervous if not afraid.
They call us and tell us they cannot be identified, even when tenured. The non-tenured research staff surely knows its limits.
This was the land grant school. Where academic freedom is paramount and untouchable. Where research would be done for research’s sake, and always for the betterment of Iowa, and free of financial influence or consideration. Where natural resource protection was supposed to be a priority.
Research that would show how we can restore prairie pothole lakes. Or graze cattle on native grass. Or make ethanol from sweet sorghum instead of corn. Or process a hog using less water. Or how to keep the Raccoon River clear of nitrate and phosphorous.
We can do those things.
But we are not.
Someone is responsible for all that world-class research not being deployed to the four corners of this state.
Because agriculture sustainability and resiliency are the most important problems facing this state amid climate change. And Wintersteen is precisely the wrong person to lead the industry through those changes.
We need to work together, all Iowans, to preserve the unique strengths of Iowa State for the benefit of all Iowa. Instead, we have interests at odds fighting over who is responsible for mediating our excesses — such as nitrate in the Raccoon River that Central Iowa residents must pay for cleaning up. And, it turns out, the leading candidate for the presidency of the most important institution in dealing with these tremendous changes is a toady for the status quo responsible for so many of our problems.
We need probity and transparency and evangelization. What we get is resignation and obfuscation.
Iowa State can lead the United States in agricultural resiliency and food security, in sustainability and in helping to build healthy rural communities. Wendy Wintersteen has used her energy to stand in the way of all those things, unfortunately. She should go the way of the Leopold Center. It would serve justice.
• Art Cullen is the editor of The Storm Lake Times and won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in April for a series on how the Agribusiness Association of Iowa created a secret account to finance the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit defense. Comments: email@example.com