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The Cost for Iowa of Being a Leading Agricultural State

Ice Cube Press

Iowa is a world leader in agriculture, both crops and livestock, but this leadership comes at a cost. The cost is polluted water and air, according to Chris Jones, in his new book "Swine Republic: Struggles with the Truth about Agriculture and Water Quality."

Jones recently retired from the University of Iowa where he was a Research Engineer with IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering. His PhD. is in Analytical Chemistry.

And most of his book is essays and blog posts, going back five years.

"Iowa has a lot of all the livestock animals. Our main animal in terms of the environmental impact is hogs. We have 25 million hogs at any one time and since the hog gets to market weight in 6 months, we have about 50 million that are brought to slaughter every year. So dealing with this waste is really a colossal challenge for the state as we try to maintain good water quality in our streams and lakes."

Municipal water supplies are fairly safe, but he says streams and rivers do not have the same protections.

"Why does this happen to our streams ? Well, the one thing I like to tell people is it's the scale of production, we have so much of this going on across our state that even if all farmers are doing things perfectly right we're likely going to get some degradation, and so we need to talk about the scale at which we're doing things. That being said, the rules that we have are quite weak and enforcement is very weak to non-existent in terms of manure management rules."

And he blames the state legislature, just two per cent of Iowans are farmers but 25 to 30 per cent of legislators are farmers.

"The thing that we have here is so much of our state is committed to agricultural production. So about 85 per cent of our land area is in agricultural production of one form or another. That is a huge number for an area the size of Iowa. And so the state that's most like us in terms of crop production is Illinois - similar crop area, similar cropping practices, similar breakdown between corn and soybeans but the thing we have that Illinois doesn't is the livestock."

Poor water quality doesn't just affect Iowa - farm runoff goes into the Mississippi River, and then flows downstream to the Gulf of Mexico where it contributes to the dead zone.

"Since then there has been research from the EU and here in the US - both show that high nitrate in drinking water may indeed have health consequences for adults. The thing that I know most about on this topic is increased risk for cancer, especially bladder cancer in women and colo-rectal cancer, and perhaps some other cancers."

So what can anyone do ? He says we have to demand action from our local leaders.

"Start with your local meetings like city council and especially county supervisor meetings. For example in Iowa we have 3,000 drainage districts that oversee the tile drainage and the constructed ditches that drain water from much of our agricultural land. Well, our county supervisors oversee these drainage districts, so for example when there's a plan to expand the drainage district people need to be at the county supervisor meetings asking the question, 'how is this going to affect the water quality in my creek that runs through the southeast corner of the county,' or whatever the case might be."

Jones says don't expect any action by the Iowa legislature, no matter which party controls it.

"I also wrote a beginning and ending chapter titled Upstream and Downstream. The Upstream chapter outlines the history of Iowa agriculture and how that was manifested in our water quality and other aspects of our environment. And then the Downstream chapter outlines my ideas for how we can improve the environmental condition in Iowa."

His book is "Swine Republic: Struggles with the Truth about Agriculture and Water Quality," published by Ice Cube Press.

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