Iowans need to raise less corn and more hell

Source: By Jess Mazour, The Gazette • Posted: Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Healthy soil and intensive row crop farming don’t go hand in hand

Corn in a field west of Urbana on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)
Corn in a field west of Urbana on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)

A recent debate has risen regarding agriculture, ethanol and the climate. Some say ethanol is a good transition fuel as we develop the infrastructure for wind and solar energy, and electric vehicles; and others say ethanol is good enough and here to stay.

In a recent guest column, Geoff Cooper from the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, says that growing more corn to produce more ethanol is the solution to climate change. Unfortunately he fails to mention that combating climate change requires more than reducing our fossil fuel dependence with ethanol. We actually have to capture the emissions that we’ve already put into our atmosphere.

When you look across Iowa’s landscape you’ll see fields and fields of corn and soybeans. This model of farming, pushed by big agribusiness companies, has exacerbated our climate crisis.

One of the best ways to capture carbon from our atmosphere is by building healthy soil. Unfortunately healthy soil and intensive row crop farming like we see today don’t go hand in hand.

The intensive row crop farming pushed by agribusiness requires massive chemical inputs, tillage, expensive equipment, and plowing every acre even if it harms the local environment. These practices have destroyed the very thing that makes farming in Iowa possible — our soil.

Our soil is dead and it’s running off into our water at an astonishing rate. Iowa’s average soil loss rate is 5.5 tons per acre per year. According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa has lost an average of 6.8 inches of topsoil since 1850. At this rate, some estimate that we only have 60 harvests left before we’ve depleted Iowa’s gold.

We have to move away from our soybean and corn system that exists to provide ethanol, animal feed, vegetable oil and corn syrup; and start growing the food that will sustain us and our soil. We need biodiversity, cover crops, no-till, buffer strips, returning livestock to pasture and more. As more farmers start to adopt these practices, it’s becoming clear that this is not only a viable option for farmers, but a profitable one too.

Soil health practices reduce the need for expensive chemical inputs, build organic matter in the soil which increases yields, lower risk and the cost of crop insurance, reduce the number of times heavy fossil-fuel machinery needs to enter the fields and compact the soil.

It may be true that ethanol is more climate friendly than gasoline, but Cooper fails to acknowledge that wind and solar are even more climate friendly than ethanol. It’s clear that climate change is an existential threat to agriculture and our planet as a whole, so why wouldn’t we strive for the cleanest energy solutions possible? We’ll all be better off for it.

As Mary Elizabeth Lease, a leader of the Farmers’ Alliance Party in the late 1800s, is believed to have said, it’s time for farmers to raise less corn and more hell!

Jess Mazour is conservation program coordinator for the Iowa Chapter Sierra Club