Manufacturing Iowa: The Designs, the Reality.
It may seem like a stretch to describe the agricultural landscape of rural Iowa and the bustling urban environment of New York City as similar. But as Ricardo Salvador, a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, told the audience at Agriculture for Life, the comparison is more appropriate than it may seem.
Salvador argued that the way Iowa’s landscape looks and functions today is the result of just as much human decision making and intention as America’s largest city. And, he said, the choices Iowans are making now could determine the future of our agricultural landscape and others around the world.
“Iowa is a harbinger,” Salvador said, explaining that the state’s success in agriculture has motivated people in other agricultural regions to adopt similar production methods.
“What has happened here in the past as well as what Iowans decide to do in the future will have ripple effects throughout the world because of that leadership role that the state plays,” he said.
IT BEGAN HERE
Almost from the arrival of the first European-descended settlers in Iowa, Salvador explained, the focus of agriculture in the state has been on producing row crops and feeding a portion of those crops to livestock for sale to outside markets. Iowa has been tremendously successful at meeting those goals, but with significant consequences.
Salvador explained that Iowa has natural advantages that make it an ideal place for the kind of agriculture that goes on here. “If you actually had to invent a place that would be ideal for the production of corn, this would be it--this would be what you would invent,” Salvador said.
In time, farmers wanted to reduce the drudgery of their work and improve the quality of their lives, he said, so they embraced new technology that made huge advances in productivity, but also meant fewer people were needed to farm. Rural populations began to decline, a trend that continues today.
Salvador underscored the point that the movement of people out of farming has been no accident, going so far as to cite a 1962 report by a group of notable American business leaders that argued farmers were not leaving their profession fast enough in the modern economy.
Because of this intention to make farming more efficient and productive, Salvador said, farmers themselves make up a smaller and smaller part of the agricultural economy and the chronic problem of U.S. agriculture policy remains how to confront overproduction. Today, he said more and more of the decisions about designing and operating farms are made by those who produce equipment, fertilizers, and other inputs.
And on the other end of the supply chain, processors and marketers are setting stricter standards for the publicly subsidized products they will buy.
What the farmers do get to keep, Salvador said, is the risk of whether the crop will grow or the livestock will be ready for market.
TODAY AND TOMORROW
Salvador pointed out that the consequences of agriculture’s development extends beyond the farm. He pointed to the rise of serious “lifestyle diseases,” including diabetes and heart disease, that are now the largest causes of death in America.
And he acknowledged environmental problems including increased flood risk from the massive modification of agricultural landscapes (although he also pointed out greater development in cities has contributed to this problem).
Salvador said that human choices led to these problems, and so different choices could solve them. He emphasized that as human knowledge about the natural systems has grown, we have a greater ability to bring the problems we face under control.
“If we have different outcomes in mind—if we have different objectives that we want to obtain, then we, the people in this room and other Iowans can actually design an Iowa that functions differently and has different outcomes,” Salvador told the audience.
As he concluded his remarks, Salvador looked far into the future and marveled at the idea some futurists propose that humanity will one day leave the Earth because its environmental problems will be too severe, a notion he called “curious.”
“Let’s think about the planet that we’ve got,” Salvador said, “and the fact that there’s time to react to very clear pieces of evidence about the planet [and] that we have great power to design systems [like agriculture] and we have great power to redesign them now with a greater knowledge about how the planet works.”
And with that, attendees at Agriculture for Life broke for lunch. Continue reading to find out about practical solutions for Iowa discussed at the first afternoon panel.
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