Dr. Chris Jones recently retired from the University of Iowa as a research engineer. A trained chemist, his tenure included penning an incisive blog series that took aim at water quality issues in Iowa. Because his writing was honest, accurate, and well-informed, it rubbed some powerful people the wrong way. You can read more about the reaction to his blog and the events that led to his retirement here on Robert Leonard’s excellent Substack.
After leaving the U of I, Jones collected his essays, blogs, and new writing into a book. The Swine Republic: Struggles with the Truth about Agriculture and Water Quality was released in June by Ice Cube Press.
Don Carr: What’s been the reaction to the book?
Chris Jones: I’m astonished at the reaction. I had some concerns doing a book where half had already been published on my blog. Will people buy this? But the reaction has been great. I could not be more happy about how the book has been received. The room is always packed for readings and signings. There was such a thirst for someone to assemble this information.
I have people come up to me all the time and say you wrote what I’ve been thinking. And that’s what books do. They articulate what people are thinking.
DC: Are these readers getting angered or activated by what you’ve written?
CJ: There is some fatigue out there with the issue, the city of Des Moines lawsuit was in the news for a while. More worrisome to me is that younger generations in Iowa that have grown up with this think this is just the way it is. When people look at lakes and streams that are in a degraded condition, they think it’s a natural condition. There’s not a good grasp of the concept of what these lakes and streams could and should look like. So, a lot of the anger is from older generations that remember things from the childhood and see that things have gotten so much worse.
DC: How have defenders of the status quo of polluted Iowa water reacted to the Swine Republic?
CJ: As we saw in the events surrounding my retirement, when you try to do something to discredit the truth, things can go sideways in a hurry. So, there’s starting to be a recognition they shouldn’t be talking about it.
DC: Talk about the issue with farmland renters in solving Iowa’s water quality problems.
CJ: It’s a huge issue for water quality and conservation since half our land is rented. Is it reasonable for operator to pay for conservation on land they rent to farm? Much of what we do for water quality, like terraces, can increase the value of the land. But that capital improvement doesn’t go to operator. It goes to the landowner.
Just an idea, but if we started regulating pollution on rented land, it wouldn’t make economic sense for someone to hold onto that land and cash rent checks from a nursing home. It would also have the added benefit of putting that land back into circulation during a time when we’re told by the farm lobby that younger and beginning farmers don’t have access to land.
But we’re going in the opposite direction because the Iowa legislature just passed a law to make renters’ income taxes exempt. We need creative ideas and that’s not one of them.”
DC: Why not repeal the non-point source exemption in the Clean Water Act?
CJ: Des Moines Water Works essentially tried to get that done. Look a pipe is a pipe and waters coming out, most people can call that a point source. No when you have thousands and millions of pipes how do you look at regulating that? So, from the start lets at least start calling it point source so we can start regulating and enforcing it and I’m certainly for that.
DC: How vulnerable is the ethanol industry to the EV revolution? And if that sector craters, is there an opportunity to put some of the land devoted to ethanol production on some type of conservation easement?
CJ: We need to be talking about this. Ethanol’s dying. We all know this. The question is will it be 5 years or 20 years or even 30 years — which is what the ethanol industry is saying. But 30 years really isn’t that far off. 60 percent of our corn going to ethanol – one fifth of Iowa farmland is used to grow corn for ethanol. We need to be talking now about what to do next. Whether it’s a conservation easement or alternative crops like oats, its derelict for our state’s leaders not to be talking about this.
It also doesn’t mean farmers will be out of business. There’s solar intermingling with alternative crops and livestock. There’s lots we can do with this land. But it’s going to take smart policy. Ethanol didn’t happen on its own. We created this behemoth of an ethanol industry with federal policy and that’s what it’s going to take to solve the problem.
DC: What about carbon farming?
CJ: Carbon is really susceptible to loss and subject to the whims of an individual farmers. It makes more sense to plant oak trees.
DC: There was a notion a decade ago if you just got the Certified Crop Advisors to talk to producers about sustainability that they would change their behavior. Or if you had other farmers put pressure on them, they would change their behavior. Why haven’t those ideas worked out?
CJ: CCAs work on commission, and we have about a 1,000 ag retailers in Iowa. There’s no CCA or ag retailers that want to sell less stuff. I’ve heard this idea for 25 years and I just think it’s a fantasy. Convincing Iowa’s 80,000 farmers to do the right thing one at time does not fill me with confidence.
I don’t know why it’s so taboo, but we need laws. I don’t understand the farmers that are doing it the right way, why they are against regulation? Certainly, it costs them in if not in dollars but in time to do the right thing. Why would you want to do all that work, while at the same time the guy down the road is getting away with murder? It doesn’t make sense.
DC: To that end, what your thoughts on the growing scientific links between agriculture pollution and human health?
CJ We’ve known for a long time that we’re doing here is having human health effects. For example, we know anti-biotic staph infections come from hog farms. It’s in scientific literature. Or that kids that grow up by CAFOs have higher asthma rates. And now we have cancer clusters in Minnesota and Nebraska.
DC: I like bacon and junk food as much as the next person. If we stopped eating things like Casey’s bacon cheeseburger pizza, wouldn’t they stop producing so much?
CJ: Can we affect change with our personal choices? It can’t hurt. With ethanol likely no. With meat? Maybe. If you look at consumption over the long haul, beef and pork have declined while chicken has shot up. The smaller the animal we eat the better the environmental outcomes. We’ve also “convienaced” meat. We’ve made it really easy to eat. When I was growing up you didn’t walk into a gas station and get a slice of sausage pizza. Items like chicken nuggets and tenders…we’ve made it so easy to eat meat. I remember my folks cutting up chickens on the kitchen counter. Who does that now?”
Now I’m not one to judge people on their food choices. And if we made the livestock industry responsible for their pollution, that would be priced in and it wouldn’t be so cheap to eat. But before we single out beef, by the way, I’d much rather see 50 head of cattle grazing on pasture then that land used to grow corn for ethanol.
DC: Final question. Do you have any favorite environmental writers?
CJ: One of the best environmental writers around right now is Elizabeth Kolbert. I like her books. We all talk about Aldo. And the stuff he wrote beyond A Sand County Almanac was pretty angry.