“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
If you have ever taken a serious interest in sustainable agriculture practices, then you have encountered the work of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University was created to identify and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources as well as reducing negative environmental and social impacts. The Center's work focuses on four initiatives: ecology, marketing and food systems, policy, and cross-cutting. Funding comes from state appropriations and from fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, as established by the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act.
The Center was named in honor of Aldo Leopold, a name worth knowing if it does not ring a bell.
Suffice it to say, the Leopold Center has been remarkably successful by every objective benchmark. The Union of Concerned Scientists summarized its 30-year history:
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 nearlyone-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.
The Leopold Center costs the taxpayers of Iowa next to nothing: $400,000 a year is its current state funding level. But, of course, Republicans in the Legislature decided to eliminate its funding, in the interest of reducing budget shortfalls created by Republican tax cuts and falling farm revenues.
In April, the Iowa State legislature announced that as part of proposed cuts—many aimed at education—to fix a $118 million budget shortfall, it would eliminate the Leopold Center’s funding, causing it to shut down almost immediately. The move was surprising, since the center’s two main sources of funding—about $1.5 million from a tax on nitrogen fertilizer and $400,000 from the Iowa Board of Regents—had essentially been on autopilot for three decades, and the center was given no warning of an impending change. The budget is now awaiting Governor Terry Branstad’s signature.
The justifications given by the Republican lawmakers are manure.
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.
For Republicans, it is a superfecta.
First, they get to eliminate funding from an iconic center with a record of research success and complete transparency in administration of research funding. It kills a “trendsetter” in sustainable agriculture.
“It was one of the very first sustainable agriculture centers at a land grant university and was certainly a trendsetter,”
Ferd Hoefner, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Second, they get to divert that money to another center at Iowa State with a narrow focus (less inconvenient to large scale industrial practices) and no track record of transparency. Despite using the budget “crisis” as a pretext, the net savings to the taxpayers will be zero. Typical Republican smoke and mirrors.
Iowa Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, an Iowa State University alum, said he and his fellow legislators are still looking at proposed budgets and will "make the best decision we can."
"It's important for us to have a balanced budget and that requires us making some tough decisions and make cuts. I love Iowa State, but we do have to make good decisions for the entire state," he said.
Third, they can eliminate that pesky tax on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that provided the bulk of funding to the Leopold Center. Since the Leopold Center cannot exist without the state funding for occupying space at Iowa State University, there is no reason to continue the tax on unsustainable and environmentally irresponsible agricultural practices without it. I would not be shocked if they transfer the tax money on synthetic fertilizers (natural gas as feedstock) and pesticides to a university center more sympathetic to Big Ag. Maybe that is just my cynical take on the matter.
Fourth, the Leopold Center’s research and educational efforts benefit many smaller organic and transitional farms across the state and nation. Sustainable agricultural research has been chronically underfunded and killing off the Leopold Center will only make that situation worse.
And last, but never far from the minds of Trump era Republicans, it makes it more difficult to conduct empirical studies of environmental impacts using taxpayer money at a prominent government institution. They don’t need no stinking environmental science to make their corporate overlords sad.
By the way, Iowa is prominently mentioned as a site for a new ammonia fertilizer plant as the industry looks to expand with low natural gas costs. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers carry two large greenhouse gas impacts — carbon dioxide emissions during production and nitrous oxide emissions from the soil when nitrogen levels exceed plant needs. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and emissions rise exponentially with the amount of unfixed nitrogen in the soil.
Happy 30th birthday, Leopold Center, R.I.P. 1987-2017
“Due to the innovative research that our researchers have addressed over the last 30 years, the Leopold Center has developed a reputation for addressing challenges and opportunities that have made a more regenerative and resilient agriculture a practical and achievable goal for farmers in Iowa and throughout the world.”
Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a leader in sustainable agriculture and the former director of the Leopold Center