Photo: Iowa State University/Lisa Schulte Moore

Sustainable Agriculture on the Chopping Block in Iowa

, Kendall Science Fellow | April 17, 2017, 1:08 pm EST
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There has been unsettling news out of my former home over the last week, as the Iowa legislature plays politics with critical scientific research in the state. In the closing days of the legislative session, two budget bills moved swiftly that could force the closing of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a nationally recognized center for sustainable agriculture research. There were also threats to a research center dedicated to mitigating flood impacts (which I wrote about last year for its excellent forecasting that literally helped saved lives), but that appears now to be safe.

A little bit of background: the Leopold Center was established in 1987 by Iowa’s Groundwater Protection Act. This law passed as the farm crisis of the 1980’s was raging (it is estimated that nearly one-third of the state’s farms went out of business) and there was growing recognition of the problems associated with soil degradation and water pollution. Forward-thinking Iowa legislators came up with a funding stream – a small fertilizer and pesticide tax that generates several million dollars a year – to be dedicated to research on alternatives that offset the economic and environmental impacts of agriculture.

The resulting funding stream launched several important research enterprises—for example, a center studying health effects of environmental contaminants at the University of Iowa, long-term agricultural research sites across the state, as well as the Leopold Center, which is based at Iowa State University. Since that time, the Leopold Center’s competitive grants program has funded research that benefits both rural and urban constituents, with projects that range from local food infrastructure to crop diversification to beginner farmer programs. Many of the innovative topics the Center has investigated are now widely accepted largely thanks to its efforts, so it’s important to recognize how critical this type of rare funding support is for encouraging and spreading transformative ideas.

Research far and wide has benefited from the Leopold Center

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture supported two research projects of mine related to cover crops while I was a graduate student at Iowa State University. It was invaluable professional development as an early career scientist, and I know that many other students had similar experiences that wouldn’t have been possible without these critical funds.

The Leopold Center’s research not only supports progress at the state level, but also has direct application to progress on a national level.

Our own research here at the Union of Concerned Scientists has benefited from the Leopold Center’s novel work. In our 2016 report, Growing Economies, we evaluated the economic impact of more local food purchasing in the state of Iowa. We were able to do that using survey data generated by the Leopold Center, in which institutional and intermediate food purchasers were asked about their ability to support local food. And in Subsidizing Waste, we calculated the economic impact of scaling up the integration of perennial vegetation into corn and soybean fields, to save money on water clean-up costs. The STRIPs project has long been supported by funding from the Leopold Center. Finally, a report we’re preparing to release next month will detail how a crop rotation system developed at Iowa State and supported by the Center could be expanded, spreading economic and environmental benefits across the state and the Corn Belt.

Also, earlier in my career while I was a Ph.D. student at Iowa State University, I received two Leopold Center research grants to study the long-term impacts and farmer adoption of cover crops. That was an invaluable professional development opportunity for me as an early career scientist: from developing the proposal to helping administer the project and to making decisions on dollars spent.

If a research center like this disappears, it would be yet another significant blow in the broader conversation over how much funding goes toward sustainable agriculture. In a recent analysis, we looked at competitive grants program within the USDA, concluding that agroecological research (similar to projects supported by the Leopold Center) is woefully underfunded, with less than 15 percent of funding going to projects that included any element of this type of work. We need more of this type of research, not less, and nearly 500 Ph.D. level scientists agree.

Lawmaker claims “mission accomplished” in sustainable agriculture (LOL!)

An Iowa state representative this week in an interview claimed: “A lot of people felt that the mission for sustainable agriculture that [the Leopold Center] undertook, that they have completed that mission.” The same lawmaker also claimed that sustainable agriculture research at Iowa State can continue, but through other channels. These comments either suggest an utter lack of understanding around the reality of sustainable agriculture, or otherwise reveal the politics fueling these budget bills.

The agriculture and natural resources committee budget bill directs the Leopold Center to shut its doors this summer, and directs their funds to another center at Iowa State University. The other center does not currently have a track record of transparently administering research dollars, and has a far narrower scope than the current vision of the Leopold Center.

Comments to the tune of “someone else will do the research” always give me pause. The common thread I’ve noticed is that research deemed duplicative or unnecessary often simply doesn’t jibe with financial interests. It is easy to see that research describing less use of pesticides, for example, might be viewed as controversial to powerful business interests. (Many examples of this already exist!)

Further, to claim “mission accomplished” on sustainable agriculture is laughable, and hints at willful ignorance about the current economic and environment realities in Iowa. They bear similarities to the 1980s: soil erosion and water pollution remain persistent and costly challenges, and farm incomes have been steeply declining for several years.

Research should be free of interference even when the politics are thorny

Even though it might not be popular for those with a financial stake in the status quo, the  research made possible by the Leopold Center plays a critical role in the future of the state, if not the nation, and has broad public support. So it’s hard not to see this incident as part of the larger political attacks on science, with parallels to the Trump Administration’s numerous attacks on climate action.

In addition to research funds, the Leopold Center supports a diverse dialogue by bringing in valuable speakers and lectures to Iowa State’s campus; I shudder to think how that important dialogue will change if the state legislature votes to close its doors. The Center has a successful and important track record benefitting local and national public interests, and I hope it stays that way.

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