Yes, Actually There Is a Bright Way Forward for Midwestern Agriculture

October 22, 2014 | 11:02 am
Ricardo Salvador
Director, Food & Environment Program

Picture this bright future: Farmers large and small, commodity groups, conservationists, government agencies, university researchers, federal funders and private philanthropies all agreeing on one thing. And that one thing is how you can practice agriculture while reducing environmental impact, improving water quality, protecting wildlife and producing alternative energy.

From site visit this summer. Lead researcher for STRIPS project, Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore, with first farmer adopter, Mr Seth Watkins, on prairie remnant on Mr Watkins' farm, Southwest Iowa, July 2014.

Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore, lead researcher for Iowa State  University’s STRIPS project, with first farmer adopter, Mr Seth Watkins. On a prairie remnant on Mr Watkins’ farm, Southwest Iowa, July 2014.

Nice dream, right? The good news is that this is not a romantic vision of a future beyond reach. It is here—now—beginning to take off on farms across Iowa. Even better news is that this is the result of applying science to the apparent conundrum of practicing agriculture with the benefits of natural ecological processes.

And here is the key idea: it is not about agriculture vs. nature, it is about agriculture in balance with nature, practiced in a way that is best for all people involved. That simple idea is the future of agriculture, and it is the science of agroecology, implemented brilliantly by a creative interdisciplinary team of scientists at Iowa State University, who have pooled their multiple expertise to apply this science in partnership with farmers.

And this is what they’ve come up with: whereas monocrop agriculture in the Midwest is usually associated with high productivity at the cost of erosion, nutrient runoff, water quality and biodiversity, the native prairies that agricultural system replaced throughout Iowa did exactly the reverse on all those counts. Prairies built up some of the planet’s deepest and most fertile soils, filtered water and sustained plant and animal biodiversity. Why not combine the two systems to obtain the benefits of both?

The scientific questions are plenty, but some at the top of the list are: Will it work? And if so, how much land would it take out of agricultural production to embed functional prairies? These are just the kind of tangible questions that science has the capacity to address.

The answers these researchers have obtained are just as concrete as the questions, and astounding. First, it works—and how. The technology, named “STRIPS” (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) reduces the major pollutants of Midwestern row crop agriculture: sediment loss by 95%, phosphorus loss by 90%, and nitrogen loss by 84%. And, it increases biodiversity (including critically important pollinators) by four times.

At what opportunity cost? It turns out that these gaudy results can be attained by strategic placement of prairie vegetation on no more than 10% of row crop land. The researchers have developed language to describe the high payoff rate from this agroecological technique, calling it “disproportionate benefits.” For a small investment in native vegetation, huge ecological benefits are reaped to enable the practice of productive, multifunctional, environmentally sound and profitable agriculture.

And farmers love it. And so do (take a deep breath and read): the Iowa Soybean Association, the Iowa Corn Growers, the Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Nature Conservancy, the National Fish and Wildlife Conservation Agency, the Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center and the state’s Conservation Districts. Groups like the Iowa Environmental Council and Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources are lined up on this one with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and the federal Farm Services Agency.

To see what all the excitement is about, have a look at this video, produced by one of the project’s many sponsors, Iowa’s venerable Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. In it you’ll see the STRIPS lead researchers, Drs. Lisa Schulte, Matt Helmers, and Matt Liebman, together with farmers and others from these various organizations expressing their thoughts about the STRIPS project.

An agricultural system that is bountiful in many dimensions, based on the modern science of agroecology, is exactly what the publicly supported Land Grant agricultural universities should be developing, teaching and promoting. Researchers developing brilliant scientific innovations for farmers, rewarding management know-how instead of a single-minded focus on expensive inputs, should be receiving the strongest support and funding from their administrators and government funding agencies. For this reason, we have issued a call, signed by nearly 300 of the nation’s leading agricultural, ecological and social scientists, for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to invest more of its research budget for practical knowledge that will pay off in more sustainable agriculture dreams becoming reality. If they do that with our public dollars, we will all truly benefit.