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Iowa Crops Look Like Food — But No One’s Eating

Above Photo: Inside a system that traps farmers and screws up the planet, Vath Sok for Getty Images

Iowa is unrecognizable from centuries ago, when Europeans took the land for themselves. What were prairie and wetlands are now neatly partitioned grids of intensely cultivated land: the model for the farm as factory.

I was in Iowa last week shooting for the PBS NewsHour Weekend “Future of Food” series. There are some good things going on — and you’ll see them in the segment, which will run later this summer or fall — but I left feeling depressed as hell. It’s bad enough that Iowa plays an outsized role in determining presidential candidates; its population, after all, is less than 1 percent of the country’s. But its impact on the food system is even greater, and may be even more difficult to change.

Iowa has its beauty: It’s not flat, as many seem to believe, and although the scenery is not especially dramatic, this time of year it’s lush, with free-flowing waterways everywhere. Iowa farmers generally do not irrigate, which distinguishes the state from California, of course, as does the astonishing dominance of the almost exclusively two-crop economy based on corn and soybeans.

Yet Iowa is unrecognizable from centuries ago, when Europeans took the land for themselves. What were prairie and wetlands are now neatly partitioned grids of intensely cultivated land: the model for the farm as factory. Through a system of underground “tiles” (pipes, really) in the northern half of the state, most of the water has been drained from swamps, prairie potholes, and lakes into creeks and rivers, which in turn have been engineered to maximize flow.

Thus, much of the landscape has been reshaped to make large-scale mechanical farming as productive as possible. Twenty-three million acres are planted in corn and/or soybeans; that’s 63 percent of all the land in the state, and more than the land area of each of 20 states. Nor is Iowa alone. An area the size of Montana is planted in corn every year in the United States; less than 1 percent of that is sweet corn eaten by humans.

Farmers talk of crops and equipment and prices, but not of food.

(Well, except for when they claim to be “feeding the world,” which simply isn’t true.) The ground is barely used for growing food: The grain elevator — the point of contact between the farmer and the industrial commodity system — buys only corn and soybeans. It’s near impossible for all but the most creative farmers to sell anything else.

Fifty percent of the corn in Iowa is used to produce ethanol.

Most of the rest goes to feed animals in confinement, almost all of which are behind closed doors in buildings designed for secrecy. There are 20 million hogs at any given moment in the state, and in four days of crisscrossing a patch northwest of Des Moines, I did not see one. I did see cattle, mostly crowded into muddy feedlots or, to be fair, occasionally grazing.

The farmers I spoke to don’t seem to know or care where their crop goes: Ethanol? Chicken feed? (Fifty-nine million mostly invisible chickens produce 16 billion eggs annually, statewide.) Cheetos? It’s all the same.

A nearly word-for-word conversation I had with a farmer who grows on 3,000 acres:

Q: Why do you choose a certain variety of corn or soybean?

A: Yield.

Q: Does it matter whether you’re growing for ethanol, or animal feed, or food oil, or whatever?

A: No.

Q: Do you know what happens to the grain after you sell it?

A: I have no idea. I bring my soybeans to the elevator and get a check. It gets trucked away and mixed with other grain.

That check represents less than 10 percent of the ultimate value of the grain.

I should point out — lest I be accused of ignoring the issue — that almost all industrially grown corn and soybeans start with genetically engineered seed. But that is so little a part of the problem that it’s almost not worth mentioning. Even if the seeds were traditional heirloom varieties, wonderful from every possible angle (and impossible in this system), things would suck about 1 percent less, because the problems with genetic engineering pale next to those of the general state of industrial agriculture. Glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup, the herbicide that is paired with crops genetically engineered to resist it but kill every other plant it touches) is fearsome stuff. But when it doesn’t work, people stop using it, and switch to another — often more toxic — chemical.

Iowa is not just a two-crop state: There are several million cattle, those 20 million hogs, and at least twice as many laying hens, not to mention 12 million turkeys. The excrement produced by these animals, if it were an amount produced by humans, would make Iowa the most populous state in the country.

It would take 168 million people to produce the same amount of shit as that expelled by Iowa’s confined animals.

It amounts to more than four Californias or 53 Iowas. (Thank you, Chris Jones.)

The state’s oil-based economy and its contribution to the climate crisis; the pollution caused by the runoff of chemicals and manure; the public health crisis that has resulted from the production of horribly raised animals and sinister, sickening junk food; the smaller farms that have been absorbed and the diminished communities that formerly thrived as networks of farm families…all of this has been written about well, elsewhere, and extensively.

Still, let me remind you that four companies control north of 60 percent of global proprietary seed sales. And in “Addressing Monopolization in America’s Food System,” the Open Markets Institute reports that “Monsanto has patented traits found in 80 percent of U.S. corn and over 90 percent of U.S. soybeans and has acquired more than 60 independent seed companies since the late 1980s.” Four companies sell three-quarters of the soybean seeds. The top four pork processors control two-thirds of the market; something like 50 million pigs are raised annually in Iowa, many in torturous confinement. I could go on.

These companies — along with processors, middlemen, brokers, traders, banks, and insurance companies — run the show, assisted by a beholden state government and powerful political allies such as U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and the white supremacist Congressman Steve King, whose 4th Congressional District I was visiting. Farmers may not benefit much from actual crop sales, but they do sit on ever-more-valuable land, kept in business by government subsidies (mostly in the form of crop insurance these days), and perpetuate a deeply and fundamentally flawed system.

Farmers who would like to change things feel trapped by the system.

There are some well-intentioned — yet underfunded — government programs that encourage farmers to take conservation measures, but these are lipstick on a (confined) pig.

Iowa is all about maximizing yield, and has been this way as long as most can remember. Briefly, here’s why: Prices of Midwestern grain commodities tend to fall over time because we don’t need as much as we produce. Against all economic logic, the stratagem is to find uses for the surplus rather than cut back production to balance it with demand. (Imagine, for example, if 50 percent of Florida’s tomatoes were used to run cars because we produced more of them than we can eat.)

If you’re after bushels or pounds per acre, corn is the obvious choice. It yields more than almost anything. Demand is artificially high, thanks in part to ongoing subsidies that ensure that Midwestern farmers can hardly fail and the pork-barrel ethanol mandate. Corn production was undeterred by Trump’s threatened tariffs, which have made Mexico and China look elsewhere for corn and soybeans.

Nevertheless, when I asked a farmer about growing other crops, he said, “I tried oats once, but the yield wasn’t as good as corn and it didn’t pay as much per bushel, so why would I do that again?”

Logically (sort of), every farmer in Iowa behaves as an individual, believing that the way to beat low prices is to “compensate on volume.” Farmers put their farms and their lives on the line by plunging deep into debt for a century — advised by the government to focus on commodities and squeezed by declining prices and “free trade” in a global market, all while trying to maintain a family business that’s existed for generations. The more they produce, the more “inputs” — chemicals, seeds, equipment — they must buy. The more they produce, the lower prices go, and everyone in the system benefits except the farmer, who goes along with it, believing there is no other choice.

Blaming farmers is misdirected, akin to blaming the worker in an arms factory: Farming is hard, and harmful farming has been the way to make money in Iowa for a long time. I felt this despair as a visitor, so I can only imagine being a young person in Iowa, born into a dying, poisoned, exploitative setting, with few ways out. The highly romanticized past has fallen apart, as it did in coal country and the Rust Belt, and anywhere else where extraction has reached its limits. (Industrial farming, like mining, is extraction: The removal of something precious from the earth.) This despair is literally killing people.

I wasn’t privy to many inter-farmer conversations, but I know enough to say that farmers talk to one another about problems, and one of those is soil erosion. As they recognize this, they’re beginning to plant cover crops, a measurable improvement. But the system itself must change, and that change can’t be brought about by individual farmers. Some are hopeful that what they call “the market” — the conglomerates, especially those like Unilever, who tout their dubious sustainability practices — will feel pressure to encourage better methods. Fine, but that too will perpetuate the system in only marginally less damaging form.

To address the climate, environment, animal welfare, and public health crises, we need decisive and radically different government action. Right now, almost all government programs and subsidies favor the corn-and-soybean obsession, and that’s what “the market” — Big Ag and Big Food — wants.

There are incentives and disincentives: Carrots and sticks to encourage crop rotations (instead of “corn on soybeans” or “corn on corn,” the two most common patterns) would begin to change things fast. So would encouraging the growing of actual food by getting land into the hands of a new wave of farmers who want to do things differently, which also would necessitate addressing the issue of land distribution. More positive changes would include the reintroduction of grazing animals in a mixed agriculture setting while banning or at least strictly controlling confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. So would setting up markets to sell local and regional food, and using the power of government to break up monopolies. These changes would make the impossible suddenly seem less so.

These changes are also justifiable. As everyone knows (or should), following the genocide and forcible removal of indigenous people 150 years ago, the federal government gave the land that became Iowa — and most of the rest of this country — to European males. We can pretend this wasn’t perverse, simply a naïve reflection of dominant culture.

It’s immoral to fail to recognize our original promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that came with the distribution of land to white male citizens (and their nonvoting, not quite full citizen female companions), whose descendants have been able to build wealth as a result. Fulfilling this promise does remain the government’s obligation, as does the acknowledgment, per the 14th Amendment, that there are now many more “citizens” deserving of feeding themselves and others from the land’s wealth, and of stewarding that wealth. The current system obviously enriches a few at the expense of most. That is not how you define “equality,” and it’s certainly not a way to approach sustainability.

I flew home on July 4, filled with unanswerable questions about the nature of our country, an oligarchy if ever there was one.

Yet the promises of democracy are ours for the taking. Or, more accurately, they could be ours if we strive. And, ultimately, the only real solutions lie in actual democracy, government that is responsible to the people who live in Iowa and everywhere else in the United States. One could easily argue that “changing the food system” is a ridiculous notion taken alone, given the state of the bigger system. Clearly, we have to change both.

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