Guest Columnists

New farming practices will clean Iowa's waterways now

Bob Watson is an environmental activist who works in the wastewater industry. ¬
Bob Watson is an environmental activist who works in the wastewater industry. ¬

Why should we wait 20 or more years (“The Long Haul — Most believe reducing nutrients in Iowa’s drinking water will take decades,” March 13) and spend billions of dollars to maybe achieve a 40 percent reduction in the pollution coming from this corn, beans, confinement and feedlot industrial model of agriculture?

Why shouldn’t we end this pollution now by adopting crops and cropping systems, which exist today, that would clean up our agriculture without sacrificing our food and manufacturing needs? Imagine an agriculture that would clean up our water, rebuild healthy soil, allow us to fish and swim in our public water, safely drink water from wells and rivers, improve our diet, and end the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The list of good things that would happen if we quit using this recent industrial model of agriculture, which must pollute, is almost endless. It is a myth that we can’t adopt these clean crops and cropping systems to replace corporate industrial agricultural practices. Even some environmental groups seem to have assumed that agriculture must be corn, beans, confinements, feedlots and polluted water.

Let’s be clear about a few things. Farmers did not choose this inherently polluting model of agriculture. They only did what land grant colleges and universities, extension services, corporate agricultural suppliers and the farm bill have told them to do. This industrial model is only one model of agriculture — one that externalizes the costs of its pollutants on to us the public, and makes corporations money.

In the first 9,930 years of our 10,000-year history of agriculture there were (and still are) crops and cropping systems that fostered a nonpolluting, biologically benign and beneficial soil-building agriculture. Such a system would re-perennialize our agriculture with spongelike root systems that would mitigate the flooding, erosion and nutrient pollution problems caused by this recently adopted industrial model of agriculture.

Five of those crop and cropping systems are:

1. Strips of perennial native prairie in all annual fields. Planting 10 percent of a field in prairie strips stops 95 percent of soil erosion along with the majority of pollutants. It also builds soil and provides habitat for wildlife. Its spongelike root system allows a rain infiltration rate of 7 to 13 inches per hour. Why isn’t this low-hanging fruit, which has been around for a few years, in the farm bill by now? And since farmers didn’t choose our current polluting model of agriculture, all of us should pay for the prairie seed used in these strips.

2. Edible perennial prairie grains for humans and animals. This solution stops erosion, eliminates yearly tillage, builds soil, provides habitat and exists today — the first variety should be scaled up for sale to farmers by the 2020s. This crop also is able to absorb 7 to 13 inches of rainfall per hour.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

3. Prairie- and grass-based animal farming. This option also eliminates erosion, builds soil, provides habitat, absorbs rainwater and replaces confinements or feedlots that generate toxic sewer gases and antibiotic-resistant organisms.

4. Industrial hemp. This deep-rooted cover crop does not require any fertilizers if it is used in crop rotations. It can be used with strips, provides habitat, food and fiber. Hemp also replaces many petrochemical-based manufactured products, revitalizing rural America with factories and processing plants. It has a 350-year history as a crop in North America (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp). It can absorb 3 to 7 inches of rainfall in an hour.

5. Small grains, hays, fruits and vegetables. When used with strips these provide habitat, build soil and absorb water. This change will require political will and personal courage. We, the public, must demand clean, nonpolluting agriculture.

• Bob Watson, of Decorah, is an environmental activist who makes his living in the wastewater industry. Comments: bobandlinda@civandinc.net

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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

CONTINUE READING

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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