Iowa’s Farmers – and American Eaters – Need a National Discussion on Transforming U.S. Agriculture
By Lisa Schulte Moore
Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses bring the state a lot of political attention during presidential election cycles. But in my view, even though some candidates have outlined positions on food and farming, agriculture rarely gets the attention it deserves.
As a scientist at Iowa's land-grant university, I believe our state is at the forefront of redefining what agriculture could be in the U.S., and addressing environmental and economic challenges associated with the extensive monocultures that dominate our current system. I think these conversations should be at the forefront nationally. After all, everyone needs to eat, so all Americans have a stake in the future of farming.
As Iowa Farms, so Farms the Nation
Iowa is a leading global producer of corn, soy, pork, beef, eggs, ethanol, biodiesel, biochemicals and agricultural technology. Because it is home to just 3.2 million people, Iowa farmers export the vast majority of what they produce. Most multinational agricultural businesses have Iowa offices, and the state also has considerable influence on U.S. farm bill legislation.
Iowans are also acutely aware of the challenges of modern agriculture, which affect their lands and livelihoods. They include soil degradation, water contamination, flooding and loss of carbon and habitat for native species.
Farmers understand these effects, and many are actively working to reduce them, as operational, financial and social conditions allow. One example in which I am involved is the STRIPS project, in which scientists, farmers, land owners and others are partnering to test the effects of seeding narrow strips with native prairie plants within and around corn and soybean fields.
Over the last 13 years, we have shown that prairie is a valuable tool for protecting water supplies and providing habitat for wildlife, including pollinators. Planting just 10% of farm fields – often in the least productive zones – with stiff-stemmed native prairie grasses helps hold water and sediment in place, reducing erosion and nutrient loss from fields. The strips also contain flowering plants that support birds and insects, including pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests.
This approach can turn low-yielding acres into an opportunity to reduce use of inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. Today there are nearly 600 acres of prairie strips on about 5,000 acres of cropland on 66 farms across in six Midwestern states. My colleagues and I expect these numbers to grow dramatically now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is supporting prairie strips as a conservation tool.
Iowa State University scientists are working with industry to create sensors and computer models that enable farmers to manage their fields for improved outcomes. They also are developing supply chain tracking systems that will allow consumers to use a phone app to get information about the farm that grew or raised a product before they purchase it.
Many groups are involved in these efforts. The Iowa chapter of The Nature Conservancy is working with agricultural retailers on improving fertilizer management. Collaborations of farmers, crop breeders and food suppliers – facilitated by organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa – are fueling a renaissance in the production of small grains like oats and rye.
Speeding up the Transition
A decade ago, my colleagues and I brought national, state and local leaders together for a dialogue on the future of Iowa agriculture. While we did not capture all the details, we largely anticipated this gradual shift toward more economically and environmentally sustainable farming methods.
As we see it, macro-scale forces are driving this transition. Global commodity markets reward efficient production, requiring farmers to do more with less. Americans are demanding stronger action to protect the environment. Federal farm policies are increasingly encouraging conservation and soil health. And new technologies are enabling farmers to seed and treat crops more precisely and reduce harmful impacts such as nutrient pollution.
As a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa, you are supporting a future where diverse farms work with nature for mutual benefits, and communities are alive with healthy food and strong connections between farmers and non-farmers.— Practical Farmers (@practicalfarmer) September 30, 2019
Join today: https://t.co/dR5D45aA7M pic.twitter.com/8BlehgBALT
I believe a much brighter future is possible if government officials, agricultural businesses and farm, commodity and environmental organizations can unite around a transformative goal. For example, the national, state and local leaders we gathered to discuss the future of Iowa agriculture proposed an initiative to double the full value – monetary and non-monetary – of our state's agricultural economy over 25 years.
With widespread support, such an effort could usher in a new era of economic and environmental wealth in Farm Belt states. It would start with investing in regenerative systems – farming methods that produce agricultural goods and services while also improving soil and water resources, unique habitats and pastoral countrysides. And it would require simultaneous investments in rural infrastructure, new businesses and local and regional markets.
An Alternative Future
What would this transformed system look like? By the 2028 Iowa caucuses, dynamic public-private partnerships of farmers, landowners and others could be working to increase crop diversity and rotations, expand conservation practices and develop necessary markets and infrastructure, such as rural broadband.
More farmers would be planting cover crops like winter rye to help their fields retain nutrients, improve soil health and control weeds. Those who raise corn and soybeans could partner with neighboring livestock producers to grow winter crops for grazing, leaving fewer fields bare.
Cattle grazing on cover crops in Sac County, Iowa. NRCS / SWCS / Lynn Betts
Surveys show that Americans are willing to pay for initiatives that provide multiple benefits from farmlands. Reinvestments in agriculture, renewable energy, rural development and conservation programs could be funded philanthropically and through the U.S. farm bill.
By the 2048 caucuses, Iowa and other farm states where farmers mainly raise commodity crops like corn and soybeans could be producing a wide variety of goods and services, including annual and perennial grains, fiber and biomass crops, livestock, wind and solar energy, ethanol, biodiesel, fruits, vegetables, nuts and hops. Managing farm landscapes for carbon, nutrients, water and wildlife could be as central to farming as crop management is today.
Easy access to rural broadband, plus advances in sensors, artificial intelligence and robotics, would enable highly precise nutrient management, pest and disease control and manure handling.
Small towns could be ringed with agrihoods – planned communities built around working farms and community gardens. They would be vibrant and desirable places to live, offering high-tech jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, an affordable cost of living and outdoor recreation opportunities.
A National Conversation
Agriculture is always changing. U.S. elected leaders hold substantial influence over this process through their public platforms and ability to make policy.
A decade ago, my colleagues and I saw a choice for U.S. agriculture: incremental improvement, or a push for transformational change that would improve communities and landscapes in farm country. The incremental approach is not moving quickly enough, and rural communities and landscapes are suffering as a result.
Tranformational change could look like the future I have described. How do we make it happen? Iowa and other farm states are ready for that conversation.
"We know that to solve the #climate crisis, business as usual will not cut it. Not in electricity production. Not in industry. Not in transportation. And certainly not in agriculture." @EcoWatch https://t.co/dmpuyeIRZe— Dr. Bronner's (@DrBronner) July 23, 2019
Lisa Schulte Moore is a professor of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University.
Disclosure statement: Lisa Schulte Moore has received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (FSA, NIFA, SARE), the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, Walton Family Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Iowa State University, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, USDA Forest Service, National Science Foundation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bayer Crop Science, The Nature Conservancy, Syngenta, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, DuPont-Pioneer, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Ornithological Union, and Iowa Native Plant Society. She is on the boards of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and Iowa Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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