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Big Pollution

Posted on March 7th, 2021

It’s always been in the best interests of the ag industry to make nutrient pollution seem mysteriously complex. After all, complex problems rarely lend themselves well to simple solutions. Complex problems require lots and lots of time and money to solve, and the bigger the problem, the more likely the taxpayer is going to be asked to solve it with contributions from the public coffers. And the folks that own all this expensive farmland (worth well more than $200 billion in Iowa) surely can’t be expected to own the pollution too!  And remember, lest you get impatient, your tax dollar contributions are not so you can enjoy clean water, but so maybe your children and hopefully their children might someday look at the Floyd, Iowa, or Raccoon River and think, boy, I wish Granddad was still alive so he could see those old tires beneath this clear water he paid for.

The folks at the NGOs and foundations also don’t mind themselves a little complexity, thank you, because big donors like to think big and the public dollars can and do find their way into the cash-strapped budgets of Nonprofitlandia. If you want to work on solving nutrient pollution, you’ll probably meet this country’s leaders at their capital, Starbucks City, to talk about grand visions and shared values over a cup of their national drink, French press coffee.

And you may or may not know that the universities have always wanted nutrient pollution to be seen as a labyrinth of weather, climate, soil, microbiology, hydrology, chemistry, agronomy, economics and sociology, a labyrinth that so completely confounds the scientists that they might have to (gulp) call in the engineers to help disentangle the mess. And let me tell you, them boys is nothin’ if not expensive. No engineer would even so much as pick up a pencil for a “simple” problem. Complexity makes for some good grant proposals that include hip words like nexus and interdisciplinary and benchmark and resilience. And, perhaps stating the obvious, people don’t spend years getting  PhDs to work on simple problems.

So you’ve probably heard of Big Oil, Big Ag (and its subsidiaries, Big Meat, Big Dairy and Big Organic), Big Government, Big Pharma, and some other Bigs. Now I’m going to tell you I think we have another one here in Iowa: Big Pollution. We have a whole bunch of people whose livelihoods and relevance link back to water pollution, and especially nutrient pollution. If you are a regular reader here, you know that I admit to being a card-carrying member.

But I am not one of the Brotherhood (or Sisterhood) of Big Pollution currently clamoring to monetize the latest craze: soil health practices. Like the poor water quality it purportedly will help improve, people want to tell you how complex this topic is and how it requires experts from all three branches of Big Pollution to help spend the taxpayer money currently on a barge traveling up the Mississippi River, destination Iowa and other cornbelt states.

The absurdity of this was recently featured in a Des Moines Register editorial written by an Iowa farmer. He described how reduced tillage and continuous cover (i.e. using cover crops) improved his bottom line $138 per acre while reducing nitrate loss from the farm. He goes on to speculate why more farmers don’t do this: IT’S SCARY. Bear in mind this is a group that seemingly will buy skunk piss from a certified crop advisor if that person promises the infamous “two-to-five bushel yield bump.”  (OK, I’m kidding on the skunk piss, but listen closely to the radio or tv when a commercial comes on for any ag product; it’s ALWAYS 2-5 bushels. But I digress.)

Back to the Register editorial. The farmer writes that “it’s time for our elected leaders in Des Moines and Washington D.C. to help us with research, technical support and incentives.” If you haven’t noticed, Big Pollution just loves MOAR research (unis), MOAR technical support (NGOs, and the agencies, to be fair), and MOAR incentives (Ag industry). He goes on to say that “State legislators can take a step in the right direction by supporting House File 646 this session, a bill that would lay the groundwork for helping farmers adopt the practices.”

Well, it goes without saying that the Nonprofitlandians are gleeful about HF 646, hoping, as they are, that the Road to Ag Damascus will be an 8-lane highway that takes decades to pave, and that will run right through the middle of their country. Hopefully no coffee shops will be in the path. Several politicians on the left are equally giddy, cosplaying environmentalism and celebrating the bill as a potential milestone, with Big Ag finally coming around to the century-old idea that slash and burn farming maybe is sub-optimal in the long haul.

If at this point you think I’m just an angry old cynic, shaking his fist at the sky, well, so be it.  But this writing comes on the heels of yet another person “on the inside” telling me late last week about the copious amounts of nitrogen fertilizer used by the typical Iowa farmer. And phosphorus is an even worse horror story. Piling manure phosphorus onto soils categorized as already “very high” for this nutrient is de rigueur and always will be until a majority in the legislature can summon the courage to protect your water and say enough is enough. So, if you ask why, oh why do we continue to concoct schemes to pay farmers to try to restrain the excess nutrients we allow them to buy and apply? Two words: Big Pollution.

I will finish this with a story from about two years ago. I’d be hesitant to recount this here were it not for the fact that there were a couple of hundred witnesses to the event. At the SOIL 2019 meeting in Des Moines, a “conservation” farmer and one-time candidate for secretary of agriculture said if the public wanted the nitrogen problem solved, they needed to “show me the money!” My opinion: paying farmers for soil health without first addressing the nutrient imbalance on our landscape is the biggest can kick in conservation history, at least in the context of water quality.

But, as always, Big Pollution thanks you for your contribution.

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11 Responses

  1. Abi says:

    In 1999 I was a participant at the President’s Council on Sustainable Development held in Detroit. It was attended by the likes of major development banks, representatives of the Defense Department, major automotive industry and many other entities that had benefitted from the browning and rusting of America.It became clear by the end of the first day that liberal or conservative, business or labor, everyone was excited about the politics and the money to be made from the clean up, not to mention the PR possibilities. I saw no interest in changing policy or behaviour to avoid the damage in the first place. And why would they? With all the the money to be made in creating the damage, money to be made in the fixing, why would anyone want to eliminate the damage in the first place? Damaging the planet is good business. And the fact that the water in my creek burns my children’s skin at times of the year and no fish live there anymore, well that’s just the cost of doing business.

  2. Eliot Protsch says:

    Having lived in 5 States and now in my late 60s, I have seen first hand the miracles of farming across the Midwest with the incredible continual yield increases, high tech machinery, drought resistant seeds, fencerow to fencerow tilling etc, and of course cheap food. However, the implications for water quality are, only recently, it seems coming into public view as beaches close in both the Midwest, FL and other States. I had hoped to spend time in my retirement on the water kayak fishing here in FL, unfortunately it has become unsafe to do so due to red tides and fertilizer driven Cyanobacteria algae blooms. I now wonder if my oxbow marsh on one of Eastern Iowa’s rivers is also unsafe for me and my grandchildren to enjoy. Soon there will be fewer and fewer places to hide from water pollution. Society is fortunate to have people like you Chris to increase awareness of this issue and push for solutions. Please continue to keep up the fight as it is time to get at the root of the problem vs more study. Science has defined what the cause and effect relationship is and let us not allow the perfect (more studies) to be the enemy of the good (less pollution). The old adage come to mind, if one wants more of something, subsidize it, if less tax it. It is time for solutions not further study!

  3. Zach in WI says:

    I think Big Pollution is an effective way to conceptualize the intersecting class interests that preserve the do nothing (while making it look like you are doing a lot) status quo in the ag “conservation” world. As they work in the service of the propertied classes, the technicians, academics, researchers, bureaucrats, and etc. who make this machine run are simultaneously pursuing their own class interests.

    I worked in northeast and southern Wisconsin as a CCA and nutrient management plan writer for 8 years before I left the profession last June. I worked for a medium sized ag retailer and a major soil testing lab in southern WI. The vast majority of nutrient management plans written in WI (including the plans I wrote) are fraudulent in some way or another. Soil health ideology is key to the way I rationalized the fraud I was perpetrating on my fellow citizens.

    Farmers were the flock that I was leading to the promised land of healthy soils. That promised land was so important that I could rationalize my fraudulent behavior by reassuring myself that I was key a key person for spreading the gospel of soil health. If I jeopardized my relationships with farmers by pushing them to comply with the rules too far or too fast, I’d lose credibility with them and couldn’t be an effective messenger for the gospel of soil health. I have observed this reasoning plays out with varying levels of consciousness for most who are working in nutrient pollution.

    Now I’m working for $17/ hour as a package handler for a national logistics corporation, and let me tell you I do miss some of that privilege and material benefit that went along with my old class position…

  4. Suzan Erem says:

    Thank you again Chris, for your insights. They say for every PhD there’s an equal and opposite PhD. Making things more complicated, miring them in research and confusion, paralyzes progress and yeah, pays out big money. When are folks going to factor in that they’ve made good money NOT paying for the damage they’ve done downstream all these years and that now, maybe, with the right leadership, the chickens will come home to roost?

    • cjones says:

      Thank you Suzan for this comment, and thanks for continuing to follow the blog. Hope things are well with you.

  5. Martin Smith says:

    Chris: Zach in Wisconsin describes well my thought when I first saw Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It was a plan to produce a lot of paper claiming how many “practices” were put in place, but certainly not promising or measuring progress toward the stated goal. Maybe, if more Iowans begin to have to pay the price of cleaning the pollution from upstream to make their water supplies safe for use, then we will see a push for change.

  6. Pam MackeyTaylor says:

    For the record, the Sierra Club registered as undecided on HF646. How can anyone be for this bill when it was announced at the subcommittee that it is a shell bill and will be modified once the Representative has more time to work on it? In fact, during the subcommittee, the representative who wrote the bill claimed he didn’t have enough time to work on the bill so he threw something together.

  7. Doug Peterson says:

    Keep telling it like it is!!!! More cost-share is not the answer. Take out the things that prop agriculture up when times are tough and change will happen.

  8. Christian Ebersol says:

    Hey Chris – I share your concern that soil carbon credits will somehow be taken advantage of, but isn’t the intent a good one? I recently read Dirt to Soil and have become obsessed with regenerative agricultural practices. I’d like to see more farms transition from being fertilizer/herbicide/fungicide/pesticide dependent and rely on natural methods, however I get that it is uneconomical for most farms to make that switch because they will certainly lose money the first few years. Couldn’t soil carbon credits somehow be used as a good way to incentivize more farms to transition to practices that restore both soil and water health?

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