Guest Columnist

Naig: Celebrating Iowa's agriculture and conservation leadership on Earth Day

A farm near Estherville, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
A farm near Estherville, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, our state’s farmers, producers, researchers, and innovators have worked to transform agriculture into the poverty-fighting, conservation, food and clean energy powerhouse it is now. Given the coronavirus challenge before us, we should be especially grateful for these decades of stewardship and innovation, which proved to be unwitting preparation for this trying time.

Still today, our state’s ag leaders remain at the center of innovation. From precision agriculture to data-driven conservation, Iowans are working to care for the environment, provide clean energy, and increase access to quality nutrition.

Agriculture is our state’s oldest heritage, but the progress we’ve made in the last 50 years alone has been astounding. For example, in 1970, cars burned leaded gasoline that harmed people and the environment. Today, Iowa-grown, clean-burning ethanol and biodiesel power America’s engines, allowing us to drive more miles on fewer emissions.

Our farmers have also been producing more with a lot less in each passing year. USDA reports that between 1970 and 2020, farm output increased about 140 percent, while inputs have increased about 5 percent. That translates into fewer hungry people thanks to the farmers implementing technology that let us feed more people with fewer inputs. Iowa farmers are supplying food and fuel around the world — while simultaneously layering conservation practices like cover crop grazing, nitrate-reducing wetlands, and nutrient management here at home.

Other advancements in technology, such as data analytics and variable rate application of fertilizer, will continue to be instrumental in meeting food and fuel demands using more sustainable practices. Past innovations in agronomy, crop and livestock genetics, fertilizers, and pesticides have allowed us to avoid global food and energy shortages, even when it seemed impossible. In the future, our race to solutions will be equally important and will allow us to sustain more people with greater efficiency.

Iowans are leading the way in this race to conservation solutions. Historically, it took us 15 years to build roughly 90 nutrient-reducing wetlands in the state of Iowa. Now, thanks to private-public partnerships, we have more than 30 that will be built in the next two to three years, and that’s just the beginning of the scale we want to see. Those wetlands will remove 40-90 percent of the nitrates from the drainage water they treat. Additionally, Iowa farmers have planted over a million acres of cover crops in recent years, promoting soil health and preventing nutrient loss.

Iowa’s urban communities continue to play an important role, too. In 2020, investment will reach a record $7.9 million for 12 new urban Water Quality Initiative projects across the state. At the store and farmers market, urban and rural Iowans alike are reducing transportation emissions when they “Choose Iowa” and purchase local produce, meats, dairy, honey, and other products. At the pump, motorists are doing their part to conserve by picking renewable fuels, and Iowa’s fuel retailers are ramping up availability of higher blends of renewable fuels statewide.

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We’re recognizing this Earth Day anniversary during a historic challenge. Thankfully, we have the people and resources not only to pull us through this tough time, but to make sure we come out as even better, more efficient producers, consumers, and stewards of our land and resources.

Mike Naig is Iowa secretary of Agriculture.

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