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Iowa’s Farmers – and American Eaters – Need a National Discussion on Transforming U.S. Agriculture

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Iowa’s Farmers – and American Eaters – Need a National Discussion on Transforming U.S. Agriculture
Strips of native prairie grasses planted on Larry and Margaret Stone's Iowa farm protect soil, water and wildlife. Iowa State University / Omar de Kok-Mercado, CC BY-ND

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.

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.

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 Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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