Ample and urgent warnings have come from here and abroad that the world is entering a period of food insecurity wrought by climate change, which is exacerbated by the decoupling of the Chinese and US economies.
Agronomists and climatologists at Midwestern land-grant research universities (Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Illinois) have comprehensively documented the havoc that extreme weather is having on crop productivity, soil loss and surface water pollution. It is becoming difficult to grow corn in the heat of a Kansas night, it is tough planting corn in an Iowa besieged by torrents of spring rains. Soil loss (which led to horrible famines in Ethiopia and Sudan, to name just two) is reaching alarming levels in the buckle of the US Corn Belt — where even on the flat land of Buena Vista County we are losing at least two tons per acre per year, four times faster than it can be regenerated.
Drought and famine are driving regional wars and refugee crises worldwide, including at our border with Mexico. If you wonder why people flee El Salvador for Storm Lake, food is the first reason in a Latin America starved by a decade of drought. The instability and violence that essential poverty spawns are driving our seemingly intractable immigration debate.
We in the United States take cheap food for granted and barely give a thought to food security. That was something that John Steinbeck and Henry Wallace were concerned with, not a civilization where you can order your supper delivered via smartphone. We should be worried, say any number of scientists from Ames to Berkeley. The dire warnings were issued in the Trump White House 2018 Climate Assessment (authored in large part by Iowa State University scientists), and since from Europe’s academy of science.
When our soil is gone in 30 to 50 years — and it will be at the current rate of loss — our destiny will be fully in the hands of chemical companies to make sure we can feed ourselves.
Iowa is at the pivot point of a world discussion on sustainable food production that promises to change the rules of a game that finds rural areas losing resources and prospects, as policy is written for industrial ends.
The focus is made sharper by a trade war with China that exposes the folly of our model spewing soil down the river so we can ship more soybeans to Beijing. It started a half-century ago when we decided to plant fencerow to fencerow to feed the world — and to create vast markets for an oligopoly of commodity traders. We used chemistry and engineering to feed starving people while paving the way to an epic consolidation in the food system that someday will be studied alongside the Industrial Revolution.
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The world gives some $11 trillion in annual subsidies to agriculture, according to the Food and Land Use Coalition, while causing $12 trillion in environmental and market-distorting damages.
We cannot count on the Chinese for our soybean exports, and the Chinese cannot count on us. So they turn to Brazil, which rips up sensitive rain forest while our beans sit. All of this is subsidized, as is corn planting in the Raccoon River bottoms. Cheap corn will be our weapon against those godless Communists!
We can’t control what the Chinese or Brazilians do. We can only control what we do. The United States should set as its goal a diverse network of food producers — not a handful of corporate giants controlling world food supply whose goal is to produce more at a lower cost to capture marginal markets. Our concern should be with maintaining our agronomic base — our soil and water. The repeated attempts to save Storm Lake from sedimentation should be a hint that things are not working like they are supposed to.
We are growing too much corn and too much soy, which results in too many hogs and poultry crammed into Iowa catching the flu (and making it smell like a sewer).
We know how to fix it — the research is all there, it’s just that the money isn’t. Fortunately, the Presidential candidates are catching on. Nearly all of them propose to:
• Increase conservation payments farmers to hold soil and restore its health. Pay farmers to capture carbon. The idea has broad support among farmers and other rural residents. It has growing political attraction worldwide. Every presidential campaign favors it. Why won’t Congress?
• Decrease the number of acres planted to corn and soybeans to save soil. Put cattle back on grass and take them out of feedlots that are drinking the Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas and Texas dry. If you cut corn/soy acreage the price of each increases, and the number of hogs and poultry in confinement decreases. “Cheap corn, cheap hogs” is still true today, and there is little place for a rural Iowan to make a living under that axiom.
Let China buy our soybeans at our higher price when we still have a soil base, and Brazil and Russia don’t. Let’s see how hydroponic works for them.
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An Iowan, Jay “Ding” Darling, was the first chief of the fish and wildlife service. Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace of Johnston crafted the farm bill as the Agricultural Stabilization Act to do just that — save us from a Great Depression brought by trade wars and a consolidated agriculture. We calmed down the Dust Bowl but never quite quelled it. Norman Borlaug of Cresco showed us how engineering, properly used, can dramatically increase crop yields and alleviate human suffering. We took it too far, of course, because chemical agriculture is easier and requires less management. Regenerative agriculture replaces capital with labor, which restokes rural communities.
Iowans are leading the nation again by convincing the candidates that agriculture can restore our soil and build it, and that it can make a huge difference in climate change by plant life capturing carbon dioxide and nitrogen. We can secure our food future by not farming for broke.
Climate change is afoot. It is having real economic impacts right now in Buena Vista County with the corn at least two weeks behind. Climate change can be slowed or reversed. Farmers themselves are raising the issue and changing the conversation, and for now the tide seems to be trending toward sanity and stewardship over trade bailouts and crop insurance payments.
Farmers are planting cover crops to hold soil during winter and spring. They do show interest in conservation work when it works for them. If we concentrated on healing farmers and rural communities, and not the traders and chemical concerns, Earth will heal with them and take care of the traders. The chemical companies can find a new way to hijack local resources.
Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He is author of the book “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper”