“Breaking Bad” in the heart of the corn belt

authorThe author of this article titled “Large-scale farming is Iowa’s Breaking Bad” which appeared in the DesMoines Register, teaches at University of Northern Iowa.

This could not have made some farmers happy in Iowa, as the most financially successful are “hooked” on industrial agriculture.  I don’t think we can blame the farmers…..

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The TV series “Breaking Bad” has ended, but the real thing goes on in Iowa just as bad or much worse. And I am not referring to meth business, which we know is thriving in Iowa, unfortunately. The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported in November that the Tri-County Drug Enforcement Task Force seized nearly $2 million of methamphetamine in the last three months, including $1 million worth in the first two weeks of October alone. Seventy some meth labs were investigated in 2012.

As Nick Reading put it in “Methland,” “all drug epidemics are only in part about the drug. Meth is indeed uniquely suited to Middle America, though this is only tangentially related to the idea that it can be made in the sink. Meth’s basic components lie equally in the action of government lobbyists, long-term trends in agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the effects of globalization and free trade.”

During a conversation over coffee, I asked several friends what enterprise in Iowa would parallel the tragedy portrayed in “Breaking Bad”? To my surprise, without missing a beat, several people independently nominated commodity agriculture and the vast network of global corporations behind it.

Industrial commodity agriculture is entirely based on acres. It does not need stable communities. All that is needed are land, machinery, energy and chemical inputs to produce one or two products for distant markets. Civic organizations, schools, churches, libraries, rural businesses are all unnecessary to “feed the world” or to fuel ethanol plants. Long-term anthropological studies in many rural communities in the U.S. have confirmed these realities. As we have seen all over Iowa, in once-thriving towns a gas station and, if you are lucky, a bar are all that’s left.

Think of coffee or banana plantations. The markets are not local, the benefits go elsewhere, farmers receive very little, which means rural poverty. It’s the same in Iowa.

Sociologists and economists report that markets in nearly every agricultural sector (corn, beans, beef, hogs, corn processing, etc.) are all controlled by a handful of global corporations, leaving farmers as price takers while production expenses rise. Add soil erosion, water pollution and below-poverty wages for food sector workers, and the result is rural decline and desperate situations that are the habitat for the meth enterprise.

Among key ideas so masterfully brought to life in “Breaking Bad” were the fact that extraordinary and tragic things go on in ordinary days, in ordinary neighborhoods.

In an ordinary day in Iowa, there is pesticide drift from an aerial sprayer into your kitchen, a giant fish-kill from a manure spill, respiratory illnesses among rural residents living near confinement hog operations, atrazine and nitrate in your rural well water, salmonella poisonings from factory chicken farms with proven records of evading public health laws, and flash floods downstream due to degraded soils and impaired watersheds upstream. You are watching a season of “Breaking Bad” in Iowa.

The TV series made it abundantly clear that the waves of tragedy emanating from the meth enterprise reach far and wide and manifest their violence in ways not clearly traceable to meth. One example was the father who has a hard time dealing with the loss of his daughter who had died of meth overdose. He works as an air traffic controller and, in a moment of weakness, he neglects to warn the two passenger planes approaching one another in time. Two plans collide, with hundreds dead.

In Iowa, more than 6 million pounds of the weed killer atrazine are applied annually. This hormone-disrupting chemical is banned in Europe because of its likely connection to breast cancer and other chronic illnesses. The rate of Parkinson’s disease in the Midwest is twice the national rate, and corn and soybean pesticides are among the suspects.

As the city of Des Moines struggles at high costs with off-the-chart levels of corn fertilizer in its drinking water source, the livelihood of hundreds of fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico has diminished due to excessive corn fertilizer run-off from the Midwest down the Mississippi River.

We must chart a different path. Many Iowans are striving to change all this. They include farmers who are practicing good agronomy based on ecological understanding of the land, integrating crops and livestock, grass-based production, long-term crop rotations, organic practices.

Groups across Iowa are expanding local markets for local agricultural products to create new opportunities for beginning farmers and create markets that are fair. They include food service directors and restaurant owners who support these farms. They include ordinary Iowans who value the way these farmers are growing their food and are making a point of supporting them and the land stewardship they practice.

They include Practical Farmers of Iowa, a network of farmers and others who are proving that a sane, productive, profitable, system of food and agriculture is possible and practical.

We need state and federal policies that support these forms of being in Iowa rather than breaking bad.

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