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Missing the field for crops: discussions on aerial application
A few months ago now, I talked with a representative from the National Agricultural Aviation Association, which bills itself as the “voice of the aerial application industry” – or the use of aircraft to apply pesticides, seeds, or fertilizer. Before my current interests in urban transportation and land use (and perhaps partially as the result of growing up with both parents working at what was then Rockwell Collins), as a child I was fascinated with aircraft, especially smaller, propeller-driven general aviation, so this discussion was of some personal interest to me. In summation, this discussion primarily centered around a few key claims about the benefits of using aircraft for agricultural purposes:
- By improving yields, aerial application of fertilizers and pesticides can reduce the need for forests and wetlands to be tilled over for farmland
- Aerial application of fertilizers and pesticides is an integral component in no-till farming, carbon sequestration, and environmentally conscious agriculture more generally
- New technologies in aerial spraying eliminate most of the externalities once associated with aerial spraying, like toxic pesticides drifting over to human settlements, resulting in adverse impacts to human and environmental health
These claimed benefits are especially salient in Iowa, given the environmental impact agriculture has had on the state thus far. Iowa is one of the most ecologically altered areas in the United States, having lost 99 percent of its prairies, 95 percent of its wetlands, and 75 percent of its forests since 1850 – mostly to agricultural cultivation. Issues abound with erosion of topsoil, resulting in water pollution and the loss of fertile soil, resulting in reduced agricultural productivity. If agricultural application could mitigate both of these challenges, surely this would be of great benefit to the state?
However, when talking about these claims to agricultural experts at the University of Iowa, their perception was much more mixed, ranging from straightforward rebuttals to larger questions about default modalities of thought in American agriculture as a whole.
In correspondence with Dr. Christopher Jones for example, he noted that even with great advances in agricultural productivity in recent decades, of which aerial application technologies are a part of, there has been no significant move to restore natural lands in Iowa, or the ‘corn belt’ more broadly (indeed, I have previously written about the link between the dearth of preserved land and agriculture in Iowa for the Iowa City Press-Citizen). Furthermore, even with the industry representative admitting some past challenges with the inadvertent distribution of aerially applied pesticides, all of the people I reached out to noted continuing externalities associated with aerial application, including fish kills from fungicides and human illness and poisoning from exposure to aerially applied pesticides. With investigation into aerial application incidents only happening reactively to the reporting of issues, the scale of aerial pesticide exposure in Iowa is largely unknown.
However, perhaps the largest counterpoint was that when it came to framing aerial application as an environmentally friendly method (vis-à-vis erosion mitigation and land preservation), that aerial application advocates were missing the forest for the trees – or perhaps in this case, missing the field for crops. Dr. Jones noted that by far the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in Iowa – which in turn is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state – is not from the diesel fuel, kerosene, or avgas used to power tractors or propel aircraft. In actuality, it is nitrous oxide from the application of nitrogen fertilizer, and methane from livestock, which are in turn fed from crops grown with nitrogen fertilizer. With 300 and 80 times more warming power than carbon dioxide, respectively, it does not matter what method by which the fertilizer is applied, from a tractor, an aircraft, or otherwise – its direct impact, and the wider system it supports, still has the same adverse affect on the environment. So long as aerial application was used in the service of increasing corn cultivation, using nitrogen fertilizer produced with natural gas, there was simply no way for it to be truly environmentally friendly.
When initially planning this article, my focus was much narrower, such as towards the potential impacts of the continued use of leaded fuel in piston-engine agricultural aircraft – I did not anticipate the full ‘answer’ to my questions to be a deconstruction of American agriculture writ large. However, with a little more preparation, perhaps I should not have been so naïve. In the European Union, discussions beginning in the early 1990s have resulted in aerial spraying being banned virtually entirely since 2009 “to minimize negative effects for human and environmental health”, and “with exceptions granted only under strict conditions”.
Austin Wu is a Gazette editorial fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org
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