Soil Is a Finite Resource – Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone for Good

Iowa's rivers are filling with silt from farm fields. Photo: Joe Hennager

Iowa's rivers are filling with silt from farm fields. Photo: Joe Hennager

On a recent drive through rural Iowa, Joe and I stopped to talk with an elderly farmer. The first thing he said to us was how concerned he is about Iowa’s topsoil. It’s blowing off the fields and into the waterways. He plants row crops and uses some terracing to hold the soil, but still, it blows away. And he’s concerned.

As we drove a little farther, we stopped at a bridge. We walked out and looked at the river. Most of it was silt in the middle, with a little bit of water flowing around the edges. This was a dramatic representation of the farmer’s concerns. The soil in Iowa — and other states — is leaving the fields at an alarming rate.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) asked Angie Tagtow, a registered dietitian who serves as a Food and Society Policy Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy out of Minneapolis, to speak to the issue of soil quality in farmland. Tagtow previously served 10 years at the Iowa Department of Public Health. This is Part Two of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

TAGTOW: Having a registered dietitian talk about environmental resources and natural resources conservation is a little bit of an anomaly — I am often drawn to the work of Sir Albert Howard, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry and Fred Kirschenmann. But the justification is there, because if you don’t have a healthy environment, you’re not going to be able to produce healthy food.

For me, the connection to soil started on our property more than 15 years ago. We live north of Elkhart, Iowa, and when we bought the property, we didn’t have the means of taking care of it. So we continued to cash-rent it to the farmer who sold it to us. Over the years, we noticed that we had a tremendous amount of erosion. We had flooding. We were witnessing a lot of destruction that we were not prepared to observe.

There was another thing that was quite disturbing — and this was anecdotal, not evidence based, but it supports a lot of the evidence out there. We have dogs that we take for a walk every evening around the perimeter of our land. We were cash-renting our land in 1999, and I happened to be on vacation one day in July or August when the Co-op came by and sprayed the soybeans. I didn’t think about it at the time, because it was part of our landscape; we see these folks almost every day on the road or in the field.

The Tagtows planted their field in tall-grass prairie. Photo: Angie Tagtow

The Tagtows planted their field in tall-grass prairie. Photo: Angie Tagtow

We took our ritual walk that evening, and within 24 hours, both dogs were sick. We noticed it was a perennial problem; both dogs would throw up at certain times of the year. But it didn’t really connect with me until after I was home that day and watched them spray the field. We decided, that because we did not know what chemicals were being put on the land, with the massive erosion, and the fact that our vegetable gardens near the house wouldn’t grow well, that we really needed to make a change. So in 2001, we planted our field in native tall-grass prairie.

Since then, we have seen a tremendous growth in the biodiversity of not only plant life, but insects and small animals. We even have worms. We didn’t have worms before, but we didn’t know that at the time, because everything was sanitized. So we’ve really been able to nourish the land again and restore it to the way it was. And we’re devoted to assuring that the biodiversity and the soil and water health continue. You see, biodiversity is the quintessential measure of overall health.

Folks don’t realize that we continue to lose a whole lot of soil every year. The Iowa Daily Erosion Project actually measures the amount of soil lost in Iowa. Just in 2008 alone — now, mind you, we had the floods in June of 2008 — about two-thirds of the counties had pockets that lost between 24 and 56 tons of soil per acre. And that’s just in 12 months.

What we often don’t think about is that once the soil is gone, it’s gone. It’s a finite resource. The question that I ask people is, What is your landscape going to look like in 50 or 100 years? Because when the soil is gone, we’re not going to have farms. Right now, 86 percent of Iowa’s landscape is in row crop production. 86 percent.

BPGL: We’ll be a dust bowl.

TAGTOW: If we have two to three years of drought, we’re going to be in dire straits. The connection between soil and biodiversity and healthy food has been near and dear to my heart, because I’ve experienced first hand the destruction of what conventional, industrial agricultural production in Iowa is all about.

Changing Policy to Conserve the Soil

BPGL: I can imagine someone reading this and saying, “Fine. You can afford to put your land into prairie grass, but I need to produce with my land.” What recommendation do you make to farmers who need to have their land in production but want to do better than they’re doing now?

Current farm policies support mono-cropping. Photo: Joe Hennager

Current farm policies support mono-cropping. Photo: Joe Hennager

TAGTOW: It comes back to incentives to farmers out of federal agriculture policy. Even though US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan have only been in office for a little over half a year, we’re already seeing significant changes in farm policies. Some new conservation stewardship programs are being launched this year — and they’re finally being funded. Farmers can look to these policies as an opportunity for increasing their land conservation and stewardship.

There needs to be greater incentive to farmers to do some things that conserve the soil, that clean the water and clean the air on their land, that decrease reliance on fossil fuels. Right now, our policies do not provide incentives to farmers to do that — in fact the current farm policies support large-scale, mono-cropping systems. The incentives for growing as much corn and soybeans as possible are greater than incentives for conserving the land, at this point.

BPGL: What kind of policy would you like to see regarding protection of the waterways from the chemicals that farmers apply — if they insist on applying chemicals?

TAGTOW: One thing we may see in the near future is that it’s almost becoming cost-prohibitive to apply farm chemicals unless you’re a very, very large corporate farm. So the cost of inputs may be the incentive for not applying them, which could possibly improve our water resources here in Iowa. But once again, we’re looking at conservation measures within policies that need to be changed. Can farmers be paid to increase their buffer strips around low-lying areas, around prairie pot holes, and around streams and rivers and lakes, or to grow cover crops?

Another part of this discussion is the application of manure from large-scale livestock facilities and the concentration of antibiotics, hormones or other toxins in that manure. However, I also want to note that the issues surrounding Iowa’s water quality is not solely linked to industrial farms. We need to closely examine waste-water discharge policies pertaining to homes, communities and businesses. There are opportunities for strengthening requirements and enforcements of waste-water discharge.

Increasing Biodiversity

BPGL: We pretty much have a monoculture here in Iowa, with either corn or soybeans being grown year after year after year. What are your thoughts on the lack of biodiversity in this state (and perhaps in other states, with other crops)?

TAGTOW: We need to establish incentives for diversifying crops. It goes back to the conservation measure again. Right now we have such a fragile system in the fact that we’ve got 86 percent of Iowa’s landscape enrolled in agriculture — which is about 30 million acres. And knowing that the majority of that land is in two crops multiplies Iowa’s vulnerability and fragility. If one of those crops fails, for whatever reason, it puts the whole state in an economic bind.

In Iowa, it's getting increasingly difficult to find a crop other than soybeans or corn. Photo: Joe Hennager

In Iowa, it's getting increasingly difficult to find a crop other than soybeans or corn. Photo: Joe Hennager

From a biodiversity standpoint, this is where I connect it back to the health, not only environmental health, but being able to produce a food supply that promotes the health of Iowans as well. Back in the 1920s to 1930s, Iowa actually produced about 34 different crops — most of which actually stayed in Iowa and fed Iowans. Half of those crops at the time were fruits and vegetables. And we know that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are the foods that promote good health.

Since then, because of farm policy, because we have treated growing food as an economic driver versus growing food to support the food and health needs of Iowans, we have decreased the number of food crops that are actually grown in Iowa to about 11. And that is determined based on [crops produced by] at least one percent of the farms. If you look at that list of 11, based on the last US farm census, none of those are fruits and vegetables. We lost our fruits and vegetables on a significant scale back in the 1940s and 50s. We really haven’t grown a significant amount of fruits and vegetables in 50 or 60 years.

We need to put policies in place that offer incentives and supports to new or transitioning farmers to grow what the USDA likes to call “specialty crops” — fruits and vegetables. This is another way of both increasing the biodiversity of the foods that are grown here in Iowa, which is going to create better balance within the ecosystem, and providing increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables to Iowans that we haven’t had in the past. We’ve got a lot of farmers’ markets out there, which is great, but it’s pretty small in comparison to the amount of land that’s already dedicated to feeding livestock or producing ethanol.

BPGL: It seems an almost impossible challenge when farmers have so much money invested in their CAFOs or their equipment for farming corn and soybeans. How do you get farmers to change? Obviously, there need to be economic incentives, as you described, but is it doable?

TAGTOW: I think it is, but it’s going to take a long time. What is exciting is the creativity and ingenuity farmers do have in making conservation practices work. Unfortunately, I think something pretty significant needs to happen in order to create a 45-degree turn in the direction that we’re going. However, there are some great programs that are being launched, not only through USDA but also through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. They’re small, but they do represent change in a very positive direction to improve the health of Iowa.

There are also programs being offered by nonprofit organizations, such as Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Land Stewardship Project out of Minneapolis. There are many, many other nonprofit farming organizations offering these services and supports to farmers on being able to transition to more biodiverse crops, or to increase the amount of land dedicated to conservation, or to transition to organic farm practices. So that is a very positive sign, though it is small in comparison to the conglomerates we see out on our fields.

Who Will Own the Land?

BPGL: I keep hearing that it’s almost impossible for the family farm to stay alive. Once the older farmers retire or die, and their kids have the opportunity to take over, so often they either don’t want to or they can’t afford to; they have to sell off the property. Do you see any changes in policy that would help preserve the small family farm?

What will happen to the family farms as the older farmers retire? Photo: Joe Hennager

What will happen to the family farms as the older farmers retire? Photo: Joe Hennager

TAGTOW: Again, there is some advocacy work being done by certain groups on these issues, but the scary reality is, because of the average age of the farmer owners here in Iowa, we are going to see some of the largest land transfers in the next 20 to 25 years. And because of land prices, it’s not going to be family members who can afford to keep that land. There is a concern that land in Iowa will no longer be owned by individuals and families, but more land will be owned by corporations or even by other countries, because other countries are land-grabbing as well. For example, China and India are going to have some of the largest anticipated growth in population in the next 40 years, and they need to secure land to grow their own food.

BPGL: Is it likely then, if China and India grab up a lot of land in Iowa, that the food produced here will be shipped there and won’t support the people here in Iowa?

TAGTOW: Yes, but it is not much different than what’s happening now. With a lot of the farming that happens here, the products get exported out of Iowa. We don’t really garner the true economic benefit of what we grow here. Other companies that are outside of the state get the economic gain from our land.

We know that we’re going to have some of the largest land transfers here in Iowa. Somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of the land owned in Iowa is owned by women. It’s starting to happen in Wisconsin — and a little bit in Iowa through Women, Food, and Agriculture Network — women are getting together. They’re collaborating on some of their decisions. They’re getting educated as to what their options are for transferring that land in the near future. Again, it’s happening on such a small scale. There isn’t any large, concerted effort into assuring that the land in Iowa is still here to benefit Iowans.

BPGL: And if there’s no soil left, it will be a moot question, anyway.


Eaters Don’t Know What’s in Our Food

BPGL: Another issue that many people are concerned about is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. What is your opinion about the use of GMO seeds and the health effects of the foods grown from them?

The best way to know what's in your food is to grow it yourself. Photo: Courtesy Angie Tagtow

The best way to know what's in your food is to grow it yourself. Photo: Courtesy Angie Tagtow

TAGTOW: The fact that here in Iowa we have so much of our land dedicated to two crops, of which a very large percentage are genetically modified, does deeply concern me. Agribusiness has moved these crops so swiftly onto land and into the backyards of farmers that we haven’t had a chance to ask those critical questions about what it means — now or for the future. The mono-cropping culture that exists here has led to environmental degradation — with all crops, whether they’re GMO or not.

From a health side, there is emerging evidence linking the potential ill health effects of genetically modified food both in animals and in humans. I am definitely an advocate of labeling GMO food. I don’t think it’s going to happen in the near future, but again it comes back to the transparency issue. Eaters don’t know what’s in their food — and frankly, biotechnology is a complex issue.

I also take the position that humans weren’t biologically designed to consume a great amount of genetically modified foods. And now we’ve flooded the food supply with high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oil, two main ingredients derived from GMO crops that are in a lot of processed, packaged foods — and do not contribute to a healthy diet. As a result of having very cheap raw materials, there are more and more ingredients that are derived from GMO corn and soybeans. I am one to question the appropriateness of flooding a human (and animal) food supply with crops that were not designed to promote health, but instead are designed to resist herbicides and pesticides.

It all comes back to what I said earlier: Healthy soil grows healthy foods, and healthy food nourishes healthy people, and we know that healthy people form healthy communities. That’s my way of connecting the health of our environment to the health of our food supply to the health of our communities.

Two Minutes with the President

BPGL: What would you say if you had two minutes with President Obama?

TAGTOW: The first thing that I would say is that the future health of this country is greatly dependent upon the health of children of today, and if we don’t change the way we feed children, the society within the United States is going to decline dramatically. I’d share the quote from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.” My first recommendation to the President is that we need to assure that all kids are fed fresh foods that promote health, and the best way of doing that is to connect schools with farms that grow fresh fruits and vegetables.

Part 1: Healthy Soil -> Healthy Food -> Healthy People -> Healthy Communities

Part 2: Soil Is a Finite Resource – Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone for Good (Top of Page)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Healthy Soil -> Healthy Food -> Healthy People -> Healthy Communities

Part 2: Soil Is a Finite Resource – Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone for Good

(Top of Page)


5 Responses to “Soil Is a Finite Resource – Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone for Good”

  1. Tai Johnson-Spratt on October 8th, 2009 4:39 am

    Great article. I thought the sentence ” because of farm policy, because we have treated growing food as an economic driver versus growing food to support the food and health needs of Iowans.” pretty much sums it up. Thanks to Angie and Kelly for their good work !

  2. Julia Wasson on October 8th, 2009 5:06 am

    Hi Tai.
    Your comment is meaningful because, as a sustainable farmer, you know firsthand the importance of the work Angie does. Thanks for writing to share your thoughts.

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