2022 Iowa Academy of Science symposium

2022 Iowa
Academy of Science symposium

Iowa Can Be: a water cleansing, soil building, flood mitigating sponge, habitat enhancing, human recreating state with a healthy agriculture growing crops and animals in sustainable and non-polluting ways for both people food and manufacturing goods.

2022 IAS Symposium title: Iowa can transition to a healthy agriculture now.

Abstract: Historically Iowa was a water cleansing sponge and soil building land. Because all the agricultural crops and cropping systems discussed in this transition symposium exist today, the symposium will stipulate that the transition to a healthy agriculture has already been completed. The presenters will then be asked to tell how that transition was accomplished from their perspective, and/or, what Iowa is like now that we have transitioned to a healthy and soil rejuvenating agriculture. It is important to let people know that this future can exist today, show them what it would be like, and let them know that we do not need to continue with this inherently polluting industrial model of agriculture to feed ourselves. 


            Industrial agriculture’s inherent pollution is existential for humans in terms of climate change, water – air – and soil – pollution, soil loss, ecosystem pollution, and human health-harming pollution.

            It has been reported that it will take decades to attain just a 45% reduction of this industrial agriculture pollution based on the pace that is actually being done by farmers through the voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Do we have that long to wait? Why wait when we can start this transition to a healthy agriculture today?

            What follows is “what we can do.” The “how we can do it” is the discussion that will be difficult because of entrenched forces, and entrenched visions of the future. This transition assumes that mindsets must change, that the Farm Bill must change, and that the government must be involved to achieve the changes envisioned to attain this transition to a “healthy agriculture” and a “livable world” going forward.

Housekeeping before we go to the future: We have been cautioned on two items that have been central to many of us working on these issues, carbon sequestration and STRIPS. We will discuss those cautions here in the present before we go to the future.

Carbon sequestration and Iowa soils – Matt Liebman – Bob Watson.

STRIPS – Bob Watson – Matt Liebman – Chris Jones.

            Transition to a healthy agriculture:

1. Long crop rotations discussion – Matt Liebman.

Enhancing Biodiversity to Improve Environmental Quality and Crop Production:

            Recent meta-analyses of experiments conducted around the world indicate that enhancing biodiversity in cropping systems can promote multiple ecosystem services and environmental benefits without compromising yield. Over the past two decades the effects of different rotation systems comprising different levels of crop diversity have been investigated in a 9-hectare (22-acre) field experiment at Iowa State University’s Marsden Farm in Boone Co., IA. Results indicate that adding oat, red clover, and alfalfa to a conventionally managed 2-year corn-soybean rotation to form 3-year and 4-year rotations had positive effects on a wide range of environmental indicators and crop performance. Compared with the simpler rotation system, the more diverse rotations had higher corn and soybean yields, enhanced soil quality, equivalent profitability, and lower herbicide-related aquatic toxicity, fossil energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and damage to human health due to fine particulate matter. Crop diversification also reduced discharge of soil sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Transitions to more diverse, more sustainable cropping systems can be promoted by at least four factors: state and national policies, including regulations and incentive payments; new marketing opportunities due to changes in consumer preferences and the activities of food processors and distributors; farmer-to-farmer education and outreach; and technical innovations, including those derived from plant breeding. Substantial improvements in the environmental sustainability of Iowa’s agriculture are achievable now, without sacrificing food security or farmer livelihoods.

2. Laura Jackson – how we used Prairie as a model and benchmark for designing our agroecosystems, including features such as perennial grain crops, long crop rotations with ruminant herbivores, rotational grazing, and prairie plantings for biomass energy – thermal heat.

3. Chris Jones – Making choices: Designing a production system around human nutrition, environmental outcomes, and farmer prosperity.

            Nearly all of Iowa’s landscape is highly disturbed, but some areas are much more disturbed than others. Going forward, it makes little sense to continue shoehorning the corn-soybean-ethanol-CAFO model into every possible acre while at the same time wasting taxpayer resources trying to overcome its fundamental flaws. How can we design a production system focused on human nutrition, environmental outcomes, and prosperity? This presentation will look at the varied Iowa landscapes and what they might look like in a transformed system.

4. Bob Watson – The US is one of the world’s largest importers of hemp products. Hemp would be similar to prairie in that it is a cover crop with deep roots, and can seed itself in some applications. Hemp can be used for thousands of products, both food and manufacturing. Hemp can replace many petro-chemical products. As a bulk commodity, hemp can help revitalize rural Iowa’s small communities since it would be best to process hemp locally. We have had hemp factories in Iowa in the past.

5. Bob Watson – by mandating, where possible, that most Iowa county road ditches and Iowa Drainage District ditches are planted to prairie (Iowa Roadside Management). Prairie as a farm bill crop.

            The world now produces enough food through grains to feed double our current population. By encouraging eating lower on the food chain and raising meat animals on the land, we would no longer need the confinements and feedlots that are polluting Iowa’s air, water, and soils, and negatively affecting human health. Iowan’s health, with a healthy agriculture, would have a better chance at positive outcomes.

            This is Iowa’s choice. Will we continue to be an existential threat to human life on earth through the industrial model of agriculture now prevalent in Iowa, or will we be part of the solution to that threat?

Questions and comments.