OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Net-zero Soil Erosion is Iowa’s Common Ground for Building More Resilient and Sustainable Food Systems

To increase resilience and sustainability, we need to simultaneously build new food systems and strengthen the systems we have.

Photo of Mark Gee
4 5

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

The Iowa Food System Vision Young Adult Team is sponsored by Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

We are young adults from Iowa who have stepped forward and formed a team for the Food System Vision for 2050 Prize. We are inspired by the contest’s “call to a fragmented system of actors to unite, source, and support positive Visions for the future of the global food system.” A connection we have to each other is that we have been involved in Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Youth Programs of the World Food Prize Foundation, and share an interest in food systems. The three initial partners are the Young Adult Team; Practical Farmers of Iowa (https://practicalfarmers.org/); and the Youth Programs of the World Food Prize Foundation (https://www.worldfoodprize.org/). The Young Adult Team is generating, researching, and testing many ideas so it is important to clarify that what someone might say or do is specific to the Young Adult Team and not any organizational partner.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://practicalfarmers.org/about/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

We are from all parts of Iowa. Practical Farmers of Iowa is based in Ames and the World Food Prize Foundation is based in Des Moines.

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Iowa

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We selected Iowa because we are from Iowa and our state is important to us. We will live in the future Iowa for which we have a vision. A strength of our team is that members have deep connections to Iowa because we: are from diverse parts of Iowa giving us an intimate understanding of farmers, families, rural communities, cities, and consumers throughout the State; have a broad range of first-hand experiences in agriculture including farms of different sizes, conventional and organic, livestock, and crops; have interned at International Research Stations and can apply our experiences to Iowa; and study a range of majors at different universities including Iowa State, Iowa, Purdue, and Georgia Tech.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

For the most part, Iowa imports what it eats, and exports what it grows. The producer and consumer elements of the regional food system are disconnected.

Iowa is one of the most agriculturally productive states in the USA and consistently is a leader in production of corn, soybeans, ethanol, pork and eggs. Our state produces more corn and soybeans than most countries. A little known fact is that there are over 7 pigs for each person in Iowa (population of about 3.2 million people and about 24.9 million pigs).

Iowa’s agriculture system is incredibly efficient at creating high yields but has also created one of the most altered landscapes on the planet. Before the arrival of Europeans, most of Iowa was marsh and swampland that supported a diverse prairie ecosystem. The European immigrants that moved to Iowa in the 1800s created an extensive system of drainage canals that dried the land and allowed it to be tilled for agricultural production. Today, over 92% of the land in Iowa is devoted to agriculture and only 0.1% of the original prairie ecosystem remains. The current culture of Iowa is largely influenced by these European immigrants as about 90% of Iowa identifies as white, 3% black, 3% latino, and 4% other ethnicities.

Despite the rural reputation, 2 million of the total 3.2 million Iowans live in cities (Even a few of our 24.9 million pigs live in town as pets and have litter boxes). Only 17% of people in Iowa are currently employed in agriculture. The median income in Iowa is $60,000, slightly lower than the United States average of $63,000. Insurance, manufacturing, publishing, and healthcare are the major industries and most people in the city have no connection to the food system other than as a consumer.

Des Moines is the capital city of Iowa and is significantly influenced by the agricultural history of the state. Sampling local produce at the downtown farmers market and gawking at the biggest boar during the annual State Fair are common traditions. Grant Wood’s paintings of rural Iowa are copied in murals across the city and the local football team is called the “Iowa Barnstormers”.

Des Moines is home to the World Food Prize, the foremost international honor recognizing the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. The annual symposium brings an incredible diversity of food system experts to Des Moines to celebrate achievement and discuss how to do better, both in Iowa and globally. Henry Wallace commercialized the process of producing hybrid seed in Des Moines and founded Pioneer Hibred in 1926 (now Corteva Agriscience) which has grown to be one of the largest seed companies in the world.

 The best way to understand Iowa is to go to the State Fair which is usually the second week in August. You will see the latest farm equipment, a wide range of livestock, the Bill Riley Talent Show, the butter cow in the Agriculture Building, and ordinary Iowans doing their “State Fair Thang.”

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

145740

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

3160000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The incredible productivity of the Iowa agricultural economy has created a set of challenges to the food system because, as Norman Borlaug said in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, “There are no miracles in agricultural production.”

The environment has been significantly altered with over 92% of the land in Iowa devoted to agriculture and only 0.1% of the original prairie ecosystem remaining. The high levels of erosion and chemical runoff from Iowa are estimated to contribute between 29-41% of the nitrate load in the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. Weather patterns in Iowa are shifting leading to increases in spring floods and summer droughts.

The diets of most people in this region can be characterized by a calorie surplus and a nutrient deficit with 35% of Iowans considered obese. The food culture promotes excessive consumption of meat, starch, and processed fat with the State Fair featuring “deep-fried butter on a stick”.

The economy of Des Moines seems to be strong, but the surrounding rural regions are in distress due to the pressures of commodity markets. The financial gains from the agricultural system are concentrated at the level of food processors, distributors, and technology companies. Low margins for commodity products incentivized farmers to get big, often financed by debt, leading to increased consolidation and decline of smaller towns. Environmental challenges exacerbate the economic difficulties of producing reliable income as a farmer.

The cultural heritage of Iowa is based on agriculture, but fewer and fewer people have a connection to plants and the land. Within the farming community, there is a growing perception that Iowa can only grow corn and soybeans and that commodity production is the only economic option. In reality, our soils can support a diverse production system with a wide range of crops, but the knowledge of how to grow these crops in an economical farming operation is being lost. Additionally, consumers are losing traditional knowledge of how to cook from fresh ingredients, which harms diets by exacerbating the reliance on packaged food.

Technology plays a major role in the Iowa food system starting with the adoption of advanced drainage techniques and the moldboard plow in the 1800s, hybrid seed in the early 1900s, and now genetically engineering, self-driving tractors, and satellite monitoring of crops. Consumers are less aware and receive fewer benefits from these technologies than producers, and have much greater skepticism about their use.

The political system related to the food system is complex. Special interest groups are entrenched and politically effective. 

The available evidence indicates that these challenges will continue into 2050 and be exacerbated by changing weather patterns that will increase the difficulty of farming. If nothing is done, Iowa in 2050 will face a more entrenched food system that keeps farmers dependent on yield-based subsidies, externalizes the cost of pollution, and fails to provide nutritious food for consumers.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Striving to achieve net-zero soil erosion is Iowa’s common ground for aligning incentives toward a sustainable food system that results in healthy food, land, water, air, farms, families, and communities.

Imagine if everyone in Iowa worked toward net-zero erosion.

This shared goal would create a cultural movement that bridges rural-urban interests. Iowans already care about their agricultural heritage and consumers and producers would be aligned toward a common goal. Preventing erosion benefits everyone by pollution reduction and preserving our foundation of economic productivity.

The momentum from this shared goal could help overcome some of Iowa’s long-standing political and economic stalemates by generating the will to restructure the subsidy system to reward producers who meet the standards for net-zero soil erosion rather than commodity yields.

Technological advancements in remote sensing and artificial intelligence have made it possible to update the existing Iowa Surface Water Monitoring Network to accurately track erosion. Innovations in cover crops and other soil protection methods can help producers meet the erosion standards. Farmers using technology that clearly improves the environment will further strengthen community relations with consumers in the food system.

The environmental impact would be significant as producers alter their practices to reduce erosion. Runoff levels of nitrates and other chemical pollutants would decrease and water utilities downstream would begin to see an improvement in drinking water quality. As well, Iowa would have less impact on the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Cover crops and other soil protection methods also increase levels of carbon stored in the soil which boosts nutrients for farmer yields, increases water holding capacity to help with drought, and removes CO2 from the atmosphere.

Diets would be affected because systems designed to reduce erosion require a diversity of crops that keep the soil covered for a greater period of the year. Increasing dietary diversity within the Iowa has the potential to drastically improve nutrition and health. As well, vegetables grown in healthier soil tend to have a higher concentration of nutrients.

Economically rewarding producers that reduce erosion through restructured subsidies provides an escape from the commodity trap they currently face and eases the transition to a more diverse economic system that reflects the community values of Iowa and the external costs imposed by pollution. Protecting and building soil is the foundation to protecting Iowa’s future prosperity.

By shifting individual priorities and systemic incentive structures to achieve net-zero soil erosion, consumers and producers will create a series of positive changes that results in a nourishing and regenerative food system.


High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Next month, January 2050, Iowa will celebrate achieving net-zero erosion in the State. The food system of Iowa is drastically different. 

Building upon the existing Iowa Surface Water Monitoring Network, advancements in satellite monitoring and artificial intelligence helped everyone understand the current rate of erosion and where there was the greatest room for improvement.

A political framework was developed to support farmers who met standards for net-zero erosion. Funds that were previously used to subsidize insurance for commodity production based on crop yields were instead used to reward farmers that reduced their erosion levels or maintained net-zero erosion.

This shifted the economic system by offering farmers a way out of the commodity trap and provided the economic incentive to grow a wider range of plants that better protected soil. An independent product label emerged that certifies food products made with net-zero erosion ingredients, and consumers prefer these products in the market.

The environment benefited from the creation of wildlife buffers near streams which cleaned up pollution, and the changes in tillage practices led to an increase in soil carbon that sucked CO2 out of the atmosphere. Improved soil quality helps farmers survive the increased weather variability due to climate change.

The increase in crop diversity helped lower the price of vegetables for consumers in urban areas. Changes in diets along with the increased nutrient content of vegetables produced helped boost health in the region.

Culturally, producers and consumers bonded over the mutually beneficial goal, and every year at the State Fair there is now an award to recognize the Erosion Reduction Hero.

Iowa still has the highest yields for corn and soybeans anywhere, but now Iowans are also proud of how they have created a highly productive system with net-zero erosion that is in balance and can be sustained well into the future.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Because of the urgent need to transition to a regenerative and nourishing food system in Iowa and the World, we are working to align the incentives of all parties involved in the food system toward a shared vision of healthy food, land, water, air, farms, families, and communities..

Net-zero soil erosion is our common ground. To have a prosperous future, it has been agreed upon for decades that Iowa must urgently stop the degradation and loss of its soil because poor topsoil results in fragility, less yield, higher input costs, and more risk. Moreover, the practices to achieve net-zero soil erosion also improve water, air, and farm resilience which, in turn, strengthens families and communities.

The overall food system in Iowa can be seen as two main sub-systems. One system of agricultural production designed to produce commodities like corn and soybeans for export and a second system of consumption designed to supply the 3.2 million residents with food imported from other locations. These two systems are linked and have some exchange, but in general, the overarching system is structured so that producers and consumers have different goals and opposing incentives.

Farm legacy and debt from land and large equipment pushes Iowa farmers to produce commodities like corn, soybeans, pork, and eggs. These commodities have been undergoing decreasing price margins for decades which incentivizes farms to get as big as possible and increase yields. This is exacerbated by a reliance on government subsidy programs that are limited to the major commodity crops and reward farmers based on yield. Technology such as biotechnology and automated tractors are readily adopted because they facilitate efficient production. Focusing on commodities has a negative effect on diets as the production system shifts away from vegetables and fruits. Producers are rarely incentivized for positive environmental outcomes like reducing pollution or improving soil quality and so environmental protection is often deprioritized. Farmers would like a way to escape the current system, but they are primarily concerned with the short-term financial survival of their operations and exert significant political pressure to preserve the status quo of subsidy programs.

Consumers desire healthy food and better environmental quality but often take action based on lower food prices which generally has a negative impact on dietary choices and exacerbates the economic squeeze felt by farmers. There are some efforts to purchase sustainably grown food, but these dollars mostly go to large organic brands with producers in other locations and do not directly impact the local food system. Consumers place a high value on environmental protection, but there is not a clear path to rewarding those who protect the environment. Consumers do not receive direct benefits from the technologies implemented by farmers and are concerned about potential risks. Consumers are generally unengaged in the political process of the food system because the individual reward received is small relative to the effort required to participate.

Previous efforts to impact change have had limited success because they were one sided or tried to address a problem in isolation. This can be seen in efforts to reduce nitrate pollution.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was established in 2013 as a partnership between Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Agriculture, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to encourage farmers to voluntarily reduce pollution levels through education about conservation practices. Farmer adoption has been slow for a variety of reasons including that the economic incentives that favor pollution have not changed.

In 2015, the Des Moines Water Works, the water utility for Des Moines, sued rural drainage districts in three upstream counties to force a reduction in pollution. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed. The interests of farmers have significant legislative protection and efforts to change will require positive engagement from all sides.

A nourishing and regenerative food future for Iowa must connect the production and consumption systems in a way that provides a positive path towards addressing the environmental, political, cultural, diet,  technological, and political challenges in the region in a comprehensive manner.

We talked with farmers, consumers, food distributors, policy makers, and researchers, then analyzed the linkages between system elements for ways that incentives, relationships, and elements can be reorganized to result in transformative, systems level change.

Striving to achieve net-zero soil erosion in Iowa by 2050 is a positive vision that can engage both consumers and producers in a way that leads to transformation throughout the food system and beyond.

This is a worthy goal for everyone because soil is the foundation of economic prosperity for producers and preventing erosion will improve environmental quality for consumers. Additionally, actions taken in a united effort to create net-zero erosion will have positive impacts on the cultural, political, dietary and other challenges facing Iowa. Beyond the state, reduction in pollution levels will reduce the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The first step towards net-zero soil erosion is understanding where erosion is happening and when. There is already an Iowa Surface Water Monitoring network that seeks to measure erosion levels across the state based on a watershed approach. This network can be improved with existing advances in remote sensing and machine vision to track sediment levels in water and more precisely locate sources of erosion.

Once erosion levels have been quantified, political subsidy programs can be restructured to reward farmers that reduce their erosion levels or maintain net-zero erosion on their farms. In contrast to previous efforts to reduce erosion, this would be a positive measure that increases aid to farmers to help free them from the yield trap and economically reward experimentation with crops and practices that reduce erosion.

Practices that reduce erosion have positive impacts that ripple throughout the food system. Planting cover crops, using buffer strips, and reducing tillage prevent erosion while also sequestering carbon from the atmosphere in soil, reducing the amount of chemical runoff, and improving soil nutrients. Greater diversity in crops leads to increased availability of vegetables and fruits. This helps improve the diets of consumers and farmers’ resilience to extreme weather events. Additionally, vegetables grown in better soil tend to contain more nutrients.

If such a change is made, it seems likely that startups will attempt to facilitate consumer support of sustainable producers through an independent product label. A net-zero erosion certification could be built on the information provided by an improved Iowa Surface Water Monitoring Network. These certifications are prevalent throughout the coffee industry and businesses are currently building the infrastructure to track product origin in corn and other crops.

Implementing such a vision will require political consensus from a wide range of system actors. The World Food Prize could use its diplomatic experience and reputation to bring together the diverse groups needed for this conversation. Iowans have experience with the caucus system and there could be potential to develop the plan through an “Iowa Food Systems Caucus.”

Uniting to achieve net-zero soil erosion has the cultural impact of connecting Iowan’s to our agricultural heritage while preparing us to collectively address future challenges such as climate change and economic hardship. The urgent need, vision, learning from past mistakes, inclusive approach, accepting others where they are, common ground, working simultaneously in all directions with all parties, humility, cooperation and bleak alternatives are among the reasons why this effort can succeed now.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email

Describe how your Vision developed over the course of the Refinement Phase.

During the refinement phase, the Young Adult Team sponsored by the Youth Programs of the World Food Prize Foundation combined applications with Practical Farmers of Iowa. By consensus, PFI became the application sponsor.

We thought we would be talking with stakeholders in person and occasionally by video. Then COVID-19 completely flipped this. We are appreciative of the input from many in the Iowa agriculture community through their interviews, research, publications, and presentations.

The insights from the broad membership of Practical Farmers of Iowa helped us improve the feasibility of our vision for the reality of Iowa. We also focused on trying to understand the history of how Iowa got to where it is and searched for solutions to build common ground and overcome longstanding stalemates.

We look forward to continuing to connect with more people working to build a resilient and sustainable food system in Iowa.

Please provide the names of all organizations you meaningfully partnered with to develop this latest version of your Vision (they contributed at least 10 hours of time to the Vision development during the Refinement Phase).

We are inspired by the Food System contest’s “call to a fragmented system of actors to unite, source, and support positive Visions for the future of the global food system.”

The three initial partners are the Young Adult Team; Practical Farmers of Iowa (https://practicalfarmers.org/about/); and the Youth Programs of the World Food Prize Foundation (https://www.worldfoodprize.org/). We think of food systems as a “system of systems” because intertwined, dynamic, and sustainable food systems are needed to produce what people need, support livelihoods, and be resilient. Together, the three partners have a deep and broad understanding of stakeholders. Young adults are essential to this effort because we are motivated and will live in the future we create.

Describe the specific steps you took during the Refinement phase to include different stakeholders to develop your Vision, including a description (age, profile, and total number) of the stakeholders engaged, and how you engaged with each.

Since the beginning of the Refinement phase we have specifically engaged with:

Practical Farmers of Iowa. PFI’s strength arises from its 4,250 members, most of whom are farmers. In 2019, PFI coordinated 36 Field Days with 1,888 people attending.

For this application, we participated in three virtual meetings to refine a strategic vision for Practical Farmers of Iowa. Thirty-three people participated including large commodity growers, organic vegetable farmers, consumers interested in sustainable agriculture, CSA suppliers, agricultural scientists, a marketing director for a nutrition non-profit, immigrant farmer from the DRC, a community organizer for the empowerment of rural women, homesteaders, an agriculture safety educator, and a public policy consultant, just to mention a few.

The World Food Prize Foundation. The WFPF engages many types of stakeholders especially through the Borlaug International Symposium which brings together over 1,200 people from more than 65 countries to address cutting-edge issues related to global food security and nutrition. Locally, the WFPF hosts the Iowa Hunger Summit which is attended by 500-700 community members each year.

Two startups, Farmers Business Network and TruTerra, through the Farm Foundation's webinar “Advancing Conservation and Digital Agriculture.”

Three supply chain researchers through the Purdue Agricultural Economics Department webinar “Supply Chain and Consumer Impacts of COVID-19”

Six experts in global food security through the World Food Prize Foundation webinar “Defining Medium to Long-Term Improvements for Resilient Food Systems”

COVID-19 made us rely more on published documents and a description of our key sources is attached to this application.

What signals and trends did you draw from to inform your Vision? Please provide data or examples that back up each signal or trend.

Iowa’s food system has followed a steady trend of intensifying production of commodity crops, resulting in two separate food systems that exist side by side. One of commodity production for export, and the other of food imports to support Iowa’s 3 million residents. Iowa State University estimates that over 90% of the food consumed in Iowa is imported, while the state’s farmers export billions of dollars of corn, soybeans, pork, eggs and other commodities.

In recent decades, Iowans have begun to weigh the impacts of this food system and rethink.

Farmers have been looking for a way to diversify income streams and be more economically resilient. Since 2014, the prices for Iowa’s major crops have been below the cost of production. Medium sized farmers are going out of business and the farmer suicide rate is five times higher than the average for other occupations.

Land ownership will drastically shift in the coming decades as 60% of Iowa farmland is owned by people over the age of 65. This will provide an opportunity to shift the food system towards the priorities of the next generation.

There are strong signals that it will be possible to create a market for sustainable farming practices enabled by technology. Since, 2015 Practical Farmers of Iowa has run trial programs with Unilever, PepsiCo, Cargill, and others to develop alternative markets for sustainable crops. Several startups including Farmers Business Network and Indigo are working on technology platforms to scale value-added tracking.

Consumers are supporting sustainable farming systems with their purchases. Iowa ranks tenth in the US for sales of organic products with a 65% growth trend from 2012-2017. Iowans increased their purchases at farmers’ markets by 92% from 2004 to 2009. As cities continue to grow, the influence of consumer groups will continue to become stronger.

Iowans are collectively striving to improve environmental quality. About $500 million/year has been spent on water quality efforts and a statewide monitoring networks have been established to measure erosion, water pollution, and implementation of conservation practices.

Adoption of conservation practices have not been sufficient to reach goals for water quality, signaling that the current approach is not enough. There has been widespread adoption of practices that benefit farmers through improving soil, which has led to an 18.5% reduction in phosphorus pollution. However, farmers have not widely implemented practices to reduce fertilizer runoff and nitrogen pollution has increased by 5.3%.

 The pandemic of COVID-19 has highlighted the vulnerability of global supply chains. There have been shortages of meat in grocery stores as processing plants shut down due to worker illness. Over 600,000 pigs have been euthanized in Iowa and buried because the animals will be too big to run through the industrial processing lines once they reopen. This has made clear the importance of building resilience into food systems.

Describe a “Day in the Life” of a key food system actor within your food system in 2050 (e.g., farmer, chef, supply chain actor, food policy actor, etc.).

Hello Folks! Thank you all for coming to my 50th birthday. I was born in 2000, so calculating my age is easy.

I wanted to have this party at our family farm so we could look out over the land and appreciate how well things are going. My Dad grew corn and soybeans, and sometimes soybeans and corn. Nowadays, we still grow corn and soybeans on acres where that makes sense, which is about 80 percent of our land.

But back in the 2020’s, things started to shift. We took the acres most vulnerable to soil erosion out of production and planted prairie strips, then we got Net-Zero Erosion Certified. Companies started paying more for our crops because they wanted to ensure their products had a positive impact on climate. This, plus the autonomous tractor that freed up so much time, completely changed my daily life.

Now I only spend a couple days a month on our corn and soybean fields. Most of the time, I’m focused on our integrated livestock operation, cultivating prairie where we hunt quail and pheasant, and our on-farm tourism through the orchard and pumpkin patch. I even mentor beginning farmers through the local 4-H club.

It feels like people’s attitudes towards their food system changed. The first Sunday of every month when I host our direct meat and dairy sales, people love looking around at the conservation practices we’ve implemented. I even get school groups who come out. The teachers are the real heroes there because the kids already know so much before they get to the farm. Our orchard sells to the local grocery store, and they even named me “farmer of the month” back in October 2045. That year, our pumpkin patch and corn maze were packed.

I see how the food we produce is benefiting our community and I’m comfortable with our bottom line. I am proud to be a farmer because its rewarding. But the farm is not really mine. I am actually borrowing this land from you, my kids, who will one day be borrowing it from your kids.

Now let’s finish this apple pie and cider!

Environment | How will your food system of 2050 adapt to climate change and remain resilient?

Soil is the foundation of the environment and influences the entire system. Because Iowa is so rural, land use has an outsized impact on environmental quality for the entire state. According to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, runoff from land accounts “for 92% of the total nitrogen and 80% of the total phosphorus entering Iowa streams”.

Striving to improve the food system through net-zero soil erosion is a scalable solution that can help make progress towards all of Iowa’s environmental goals and transform the food system into a carbon reservoir that helps address climate change in the following ways:

Adapting to extreme weather. According to the EPA, rainfall on the four wettest days of the year has already increased 35% along with flooding intensity. Healthy soil has a sponge-like structure that is able to absorb large quantities of rain. This reduces chances for flooding to overwhelm dams and stream banks because water is held over a large area and then slowly released into waterways.

Building soil health. We must preserve soil to ensure we have the capacity to maintain a nourishing and regenerative food system that can feed the population of 2050. The depth of topsoil in Iowa has eroded from an average of about 14 inches in 1850 to about 5.5 inches in 2000 and the remaining soil is less healthy due to compaction.

Improving water quality. Excessive levels of nitrates in Iowa water may cause up to 300 additional cases of cancer per year. Runoff from heavy spring rains regularly trigger drinking water bans to avoid blue baby syndrome. Additionally, pollutants from Iowa flow downstream and contribute between 29%-41% of the nitrate load in the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. Soil is the primary filter for reducing pollution in groundwater and a healthy soil ecosystem is able to retain phosphorus and nitrogen, preventing these nutrients from becoming pollutants in the first place.

Increasing biodiversity. Biodiverse systems are resilient because there is less likelihood that a single shock can cause a catastrophic failure of the entire system. There has been loss of wild and agricultural biodiversity in Iowa. In 1920, there were 38 commodities being produced on at least 1% of Iowa farms, by 1997 the number had fallen to nine commodities. Protecting soil requires keeping more of the ground covered for longer portions of the year, which in turn requires rotating a larger diversity of crops across the landscape.

Storing carbon. Increasing soil organic carbon has the potential to improve almost every aspect of soil health while also fighting climate change by taking carbon out of the atmosphere. The “4 per 1000” initiative sponsored by the French government estimates that increasing the organic carbon content of soil at a rate of 0.4% percent per year would offset all of global carbon emissions.

The first step to improving soil health is to eliminate erosion. Iowa has been making progress, but there is more to be done. Conservation tillage is used on over 70% of cropland and erosion has declined from 8.2 tons/acre in 1982 to 6.1 tons/acre in 2012 according to the NRCS Resources Survey. However, these estimates understate the true erosion levels by up to 30% because they only account for a subset of erosion mechanisms, according to Rick Cruse, professor of Iowa State University and director of the Iowa Water Center.

In an extensive study, the USDA-ARS National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa has identified key practices that can be combined to eliminate remaining erosion while building soil quality and synergistically benefitting other aspects of the environment. These practices are:

* Cover crops. These plants have strong root systems that are able to hold soil in place outside of the traditional growing season and can store atmospheric carbon and nitrogen in the soil as biomass.

* Diverse cropping systems. Growing a wider range of crops and pasture protect soil by covering more of the ground for more time. The increase in diversity inherently increases resilience by reducing the risk of a catastrophic system collapse brought on by a single event and shortening supply chains.

* Vegetative buffers. Strips of prairie planted in the field act as a physical barrier that slows down runoff and captures erosion. The natural vegetation on a streambed is important for keeping the bank in place and stronger waterways increase resilience to extreme weather. These buffers support high densities of biomass that are efficient at storing atmospheric carbon and provide habitat for wildlife.

Net-zero soil erosion and these specific practices are a starting point for transforming the Iowa food system into one that supports a nourishing and regenerative environment. It will be important to implement them in a way that makes sense for the specific farm and operation. A diversity of approaches across Iowa will improve system resilience.

Diets | How will your food system of 2050 address malnutrition in all its forms (undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, metabolic disease) for the people living there?

Uniting to achieve a food system with net-zero soil erosion by 2050 will cause shifts that promote nutritious diets across the state by improving food quality, aligning economic incentives to focus on nutrients not calories, improving physical access to nutritious foods, and connecting people to their food system in a way that empowers them to make healthier choices.

Shifting the focus from yield and toward soil also shifts the discussion about the food system from focusing on quantity to focusing on quality. This shift is critical for improving nutrition because most Iowans suffer from a “hidden hunger” - excess of calories (too much quantity) and not enough nutrients (too little quality).

Healthy soils are widely considered to produce healthier food because plants are able to grow more vigorously in healthy soil and there are higher concentrations of bioavailable minerals for crops to absorb. Studies at the Scottish Crop Research Institute have shown that more minerals available in the soil can lead to more minerals available in food. Increasing the nutrient density of our foods and encouraging people to eat more nutritious food is the most effective means of addressing hidden hunger.

Aligning economic and political incentives to support crop diversity can shift the prices in the grocery store to favor nutrition instead of calories.  This will help fight hidden hunger while also supporting the one in nine Iowans who are currently food insecure. Often, this is an economic issue of not having enough money for food, and economically supporting nutritious foods can have a big effect. We need vegetables to be as available and affordable as candy bars.

Growing a wider diversity of crops across Iowa will improve physical access to a wider diversity of foods, resulting in a more nutritious diet. The USDA Food Access Research Atlas shows that Iowa already has physical access to nutritious food relative to the rest of the United States. However, global shocks like COVID-19 were able to disrupt the long supply chains that stock our grocery stores. Supporting a diversity of local producers will provide more options and improve resilience through shorter supply chains.

Improved economic access to healthy food will go a long way toward empowering Iowans to make healthy choices. Iowans are already supporting sustainable farming systems with their purchases. Iowa ranks tenth within the US for sales of organic products with 65% growth from 2012-2017. Community Supported Agriculture proliferated as the number of vegetable farms grew by 10% over the same period. Iowans increased their purchases at farmers’ markets by 92% from 2004 to 2009.

Grocery stores are critical for reaching the full power of the consumer to improve diets and influence the food system through purchasing decisions. To be successful, the food system of 2050 will need to meet consumers where they are with convenience and provide them with the information to choose. Organic has shown the power of a simple product label to dramatically change purchasing decisions.

A Net-Zero Erosion product label will invoke Iowan agricultural pride and spur people to make decisions that support their food system. There is massive popular support for agriculture in Iowa and people will take action to protect agriculture’s foundation. (If you want to see intense agricultural pride, just ask any Iowan whether Nebraska or Iowa produces the most corn. Now imagine if that same level of pride was present when asked which state builds the healthiest soil.) The technology to verify net-zero erosion is already being tested with large customers like Unilever and Tyson. Once Iowans start buying Net-Zero Erosion labeled products, they will be improving their own nutrition by buying more nutrient dense foods and a wider diversity of food. Grocery stores can become Champions of Soil by promoting Net-Zero Erosion foods and local farmers.

There is currently a robust network in Iowa that provides food to those in need including school lunch programs that send food home for the weekends, food pantries, farmer groups that donate food, and more. Every year, they come together at the Iowa Hunger Summit hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation. This network will continue to play a critical role in ensuring everyone has access to nutritious food.

Urban farms can serve as hubs for educational outreach to teach about the food system, nutrition, and how to cook with a diverse range of plants. DogPatch Farms and Grade A Gardens are two examples of urban farms in Des Moines that are already filling this role for their customers. Imagine a classroom of third graders walking from their urban elementary school to the community garden to learn about soil health while digging, getting their hands dirty, then eating a meal with vegetables that they harvested. These positive experiences will support lifelong habits.

Economics | Where and what will the jobs be that support living wages in your future food system of 2050, and how will these jobs impact gender equality?

A sustainable 2050 food system will economically reward resilient and sustainable agriculture. No matter how forward-thinking the farm, it isn’t sustainable if it goes out of business. We need to promote nutrients and environmental stewardship, not calories.

Currently, significant economic influence is exerted on the Iowa food system that supports high yields of commodity products by large producers. Iowa farmers have worked hard within this system to earn enough income to support their families and their communities. As a result, Iowa has some of the highest yielding farms anywhere and Iowa produces more corn and soybeans than most countries. Processed food is much cheaper than fresh produce and consumers spend 90% of their food dollars on imported foods which are usually calorie rich and nutrient poor.

The policy section of this application describes how uniting Iowans to make progress toward net-zero soil erosion can be used to realign incentives and Iowans’ work ethic toward a resilient, sustainable food system. The technology section of this application describes how a robust network for tracking erosion and conservation practices is already being built and will be fully established by 2050. When combined, these policy and technology transformations will increase equitable opportunity for Iowans to earn a living wage in 2050 by strengthening both the local economy and long-term export opportunities.

Governments paying for environmental services that protect soil creates opportunity for more people to make a living in Iowa. Reduced reliance on commodity yields will give farmers an opportunity to escape from the pressures that lead farmers to “get big or get out,” meaning that medium sized farms will become more viable. As well, diverse farming operations will be on equal footing for government support because environmental services are crop independent. Diverse crops like fruits and vegetables can earn more per acre, but also require more work. These factors will combine to provide more opportunities for people in Iowa to make a living wage.

This shift to more diverse farming operations will support gender equality in the food system. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture for Iowa, women are much more likely to be the primary producers on diverse farming operations that grow vegetables, fruits, and other operations that a net-zero erosion food system will support.

The net-zero erosion label will help consumers make purchases to support Iowa producers, which stimulates Iowan economy more than money spent on imported food. Local restaurants that promote net-zero erosion food could magnify this effect. Value in the global food chain is primarily distributed to processors (15%), vendors (21.7%), and restaurants (36.7%), with producers receiving only 7.8% of each dollar spend by the consumer. While restaurants do employ more people (12.8M in the United States), the other sectors employ roughly equal numbers; producers (2.6M), processors (2.0M), vendors (3.2M). Shortening the supply chain so that producers receive an even distribution of value relative to processors and vendors means that more people will be able to earn a living wage.

Exports from large commodity growers will continue to be a major part of Iowa’s economy. Farmers that continue producing commodity crops will benefit from payments for environmental services as well as opportunities to sell their yield at a premium. Consumers and investors are transforming the supply chain by demanding that companies develop an environmentally friendly and pay a premium for products that meet their standards. Since, 2015 Practical Farmers of Iowa has run trial programs with a variety of companies including Unilever, PepsiCo, Cargill, ADM, and others to develop alternative markets for sustainable crops. Several startups including Farmers Business Network and Indigo are working on technology platforms to scale value-added tracking and markets. As these opportunities grow, it will become easier for sustainable farmers to make a living.

Reducing the burden of pollution through net-zero erosion will free up resources for other uses like infrastructure projects, paying teachers, and public safety. The Des Moines water utility spent $500,000 in 2016 on nitrate removal. Addressing the source of the pollution rather than the symptoms will offer a much higher return on investment.

Striving to achieve net-zero soil erosion is a significant opportunity to create new jobs. The technology used to measure erosion and conservation practices will require a new set of trained professionals. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy states that one of the major needs to scale up implementation of conservation practices is establishing technical service providers, environmental engineers, and vendors of products like cover crop seed. These jobs have a high potential for helping a diversity of people earn a living wage in a way that provides meaning and purpose.

Culture | How will your 2050 food system ensure that the cultural, spiritual and community traditions and/or practices in your Place flourish?

Iowans have a can-do attitude. When given the mission to pursue high yields, Iowans turned their section of marshy prairie into the most productive stretch of corn and soybean country anywhere. Agriculture became the foundation of our communities and has supported a rich cultural tradition. Just look up “Cole the Corn Star” on YouTube.

There is popular support for agriculture in the state of Iowa. However, fewer and fewer people have a connection to plants and the land. Within the farming community, there is a growing perception that Iowa can only grow corn and soybeans and that commodity production is the only economic option. In reality, our soils can support a diverse production system with a wide range of crops, but the knowledge of how to grow these crops in an economical farming operation is being lost. Additionally, consumers are losing traditional knowledge of how to cook from fresh ingredients, which harms diets and the environment by exacerbating the reliance on packaged food.

For Iowans still directly involved with agriculture, the mission of high yields isn’t working well. Commodity economics don’t support farmers and they are going out of business at an alarming rate. There is a strong sense of loss, lack of purpose, and frustration as job opportunities dwindle and small towns disappear.

Net-zero soil erosion is a new mission that can unite rural-urban interests and become the foundation for strengthening community.

Imagine a 2050 where Iowa still has the highest yields for corn and soybeans anywhere, but now Iowans are also proud of how they have created a highly productive system that is in balance and can be sustained well into the future.


Farmers connected with this mission and pursued it with the can-do attitude that they have always had. The conservation programs and income from selling carbon credits means that farmers can make ends meet without the pressure of having to plant on vulnerable acres. It seems like everyone else at the local coffee shop is doing alright too and they all leave good tips.

A Soil Protection Hero is recognized every year at the Iowa State Fair (still the single largest event in the state with over a million visitors per year). Farmers appreciate the social recognition for their role as land stewards and enjoy showing off the newest tractors and the latest inventions in sustainable agriculture practices.

There is an increasing diversity of farms supported across the landscape. People are growing a wider range of crops and bringing back the varieties their great-grandparents used. Old timers that remember the nuts-and-bolts of how to include oats and grazed pasture into a crop rotation with corn and soybeans find that they are getting a lot of questions. Seed Savers, an organization that preserves heirloom vegetable varieties, is receiving submissions from across the state and no longer needs to go searching for seeds. In fact, gardening has become popular again, and neighbors regularly swap seeds of their favorite vegetable varieties.

Peri-urban farms serve as a cultural and educational bridge. Schools take field trips to their community garden just down the block to learn about biology, soil, conservation, and healthy eating. Cooking classes are held on the farm to help teach people about how to use fresh produce in their cooking and to demonstrate where food comes from.

Teachers inspire students to practice conservation, thus becoming some of the most important protagonists in the story of resilient, sustainable food systems.

Grocery stores become the champions of local farmers and regularly host “Meet Your Farmer” to build community and boost sales. The Net-Zero Erosion label is all over the produce section of the grocery store from May to October and can be seen year-round in the dairy and canned goods aisle. Shoppers strongly prefer these products because they know they are helping the environment and supporting the local economy. (After COVID, people started to realize that having at least some local supply chains could help avoid shortages in a crisis.)

The Raygun Shirt Company is still as popular as ever, and now features net-zero erosion clothing with phrases like “EROSION: Everyone Realizes Our Soil Is Obviously Needed” and “Don’t farm naked. Plant cover crops”. You can see all kinds of people wearing these shirts, from urban hipsters to rural grandparents. Though the grandparents often say to the kids with a smile, “Hey. I was net-zero erosion back in 2020 before it was cool.”

Technology | What technological advances are needed to transform your food system into one that meets your goals and embodies the values of your Vision in 2050?

To transform the food system through net-zero erosion, we need to be able track erosion at a field scale to identify areas for improvement, measure the use of conservation practices to understand how to improve, estimate levels of carbon being stored in the soil to understand progress in building soil health, and securely track food as it travels to consumers so that farmers can be rewarded for their efforts.

The technology needed has already been created, is currently being tested in the field, and will be widespread by 2050.

Advancements in remote sensing and watershed monitoring have made it possible for the Daily Erosion Project at Iowa State University to estimate erosion in every county. Estimates are getting more accurate as ongoing research at ISU develops better models for erosion in all of its forms and more precise measurements of sediment tracking enable better estimation of erosion source. Iowa is also the first state to use a combination of satellite imagery and LiDAR scanning to quantify implementation of best management practices implemented by growers.

Startup companies like Farmers Business Network, Land O’Lakes TruTerra, and Indigo are using the next generation of on-farm sensing, machine vision, and crop modeling to provide acre level estimates of how a farmer’s practices will impact yield, erosion, water pollution, and profits. Tens of millions of acres have been enrolled, and Iowa farmers are some of the biggest customers for these services. These services help farmers understand which acres are losing money and how management can be improved. These non-profitable acres are often the acres with the highest rates of erosion, and farmers are voluntarily taking them out of production or implementing conservation practices.

These companies have identified the massive market potential for selling farmer provided environmental services in the form of carbon credits, sustainability vouchers, or some other instrument. As an example, Indigo has built “Indigo Carbon” a service with 20 million acres of farmland enrolled that uses artificial intelligence to help farmers develop a management plan to reduce erosion and increase soil carbon, verifies improvements through independent soil tests, and allows farmers to directly profit from improvements in soil health by selling carbon credits in the Indigo digital marketplace. Blockchain and digital tracking technologies are helping ensure secure delivery of products to consumers and authentication of sustainability attributes.

This is just one example, and the names of these companies will come and go. However, the fundamental technology will continue to help align incentives towards a resilient, sustainable food system. Incorporating advances into the Daily Erosion project and other publicly funded efforts will help insure equitable distribution of the benefits.

As the economic incentives continue to increase for improving soil health, farmers will seek improvements in cover crops and other soil protection methods. Advances in plant breeding, environmental engineering, and soil science will continue to improve sustainability efforts. CoverCress is a St. Louis based company using plant breeding to develop cover crops that also produce useful oilseeds. Farmers using technology that clearly improves the environment will further strengthen community relations with consumers in the food system.

The drive to mechanize and automate farm labor will continue with robotics advancements. This may increase pressure to consolidate farms, or may democratize access if swarms of smaller, autonomous robots put mechanization in a price range that makes sense for smaller operations. Either way, freeing farmers from the tractor seat will give them time to improve their stewardship, families, and communities.

Fertilization practices will be altered by precision agriculture and may be completely revolutionized by advances in synthetic biology. Pivot Bio has developed a bacteria that can grow on plant roots and produce nitrogen fertilizer from the air. Runoff potential is reduced because the nitrogen is made throughout the growing season at a level consistent with the plants need. If these technologies significantly reduce nitrogen pollution, it will increase the relative importance of focusing on net-zero soil erosion as a way to reduce phosphorus pollution.

Innovation in social media apps could help consumers get to know their farmers and understand the sustainability of their food. There could be a QR-code on food packaging that leads to information about how the farmer who grew the food is implementing sustainable practices.

COVID-19 has spurred an increase in food delivery from Amazon Grocery to Community Supported Agriculture movementsIt remains to be seen whether more people meet their farmers in person or virtually through a social media blurb. Cultural, political, and economic structures we create will help determine which approach will thrive in 2050.

Policy | What types of policies are needed to enable your future food system?

Everyone has their own definition of sustainability. From the perspective of consumers, this definition is usually focused on water and environmental quality. For farmers, sustainability is focused around economics and soil. The key is to build a coalition that agrees on what needs to be done, even if there is disagreement on why.

Net-zero soil erosion benefits everyone by reducing pollution and preserving our foundation of economic productivity.

The first step toward net-zero soil erosion is understanding where erosion is happening and when. The technology section of this vision describes how the Iowa Daily Erosion monitoring network can improve by 2050 to estimate erosion occurring on every acre. Continued public funding for this effort is critical to establishing a system which will enable progress toward a sustainable food system.

With an effective monitoring network, we can identify and reward producers who are making progress. This can be done by leveraging the power of the markets through a net-zero erosion certification label and public funding for environmental services that are not rewarded in existing markets.

Significant public spending has occurred over the past decade to incentivize farmers to implement conservation practices and the Iowa Legislature recently passed a bill with the support of the Governor that significantly increases funding for water quality efforts.

However, these initiatives have had limited success in increasing implementation of conservation agriculture practices by farmers. Until the economic incentives for sustainable practices are as strong as that of planting more commodity crops, little change will occur. Current spending to support commodity crops hovers around $1 billion per year while conservation practices receive $200 million.

It will be difficult to come up with an extra billion dollars per year in public budgets so that conservation incentives are on equal footing with commodity incentives. As well, realigning existing public funds may be politically infeasible in the near future.

Leveraging the purchasing power of the market has the potential to tip the balance in favor of conservation agriculture. A Net-Zero Erosion certification that verifies erosion rates and storage of organic carbon in the soil has the potential to make conservation practices at least as valuable as the supports for high input agriculture through payments for environmental services. The global market for carbon credits alone was $215 billion in 2019. The Organic certification is an example of just how rapidly a government certification can transform the food system.

Farmer engagement can be improved by policy that incentivizes an outcome rather than a practice. This allows farmers flexibility to adapt to the specifics of their land and operation. Additionally, focusing on net-zero soil erosion creates a shared goal between producers and consumers rather than an adversarial approach that can emerge from focusing on water quality.

The net-zero erosion certification could be paired with other government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to incentivize food insecure families to purchase net-zero erosion products by increasing the purchasing power of each coupon. For example, if a family spent $15 on net-zero erosion certified products with their SNAP electronic benefits transfer card, it would only count as $10 against their monthly balance. About 10% of Iowans use SNAP, and this synergistic policy would increase sales for sustainable farmers and low-income families’ access to nutritious, local food.

One key policy change that could drastically increase the impact of each public dollar spent is the targeting of conservation practices. The erosion monitoring network will allow precise identification of critical acres. If all $200 million of conservation funding was spent on the 20% of acres with the most erosion this would have the same economic impact to farmers in this critical region as $1 billion dollars spread over 100% of acres.

Public conservation efforts should focus on environmental services that are not rewarded in the markets and reduce the externalized costs of pollution. An example of this in practice is the USDA purchase of land vulnerable to flooding in 2019. Farmers who owned the land were unable to sell it because of flooding risk. They continued to plant crops on the ground in the hope of having a crop or receiving a disaster relief payment. The purchase of the land by the USDA helped improve the environment by re-establishing natural flood plains and saved costs in the long-term by reducing disaster payments. Ramping up these policies in the next 30 years could complement the market-based strategies and help all of Iowa build a resilient, sustainable food system.

Describe how these 6 Themes connect with and influence one another in your food system.

The food system is incredibly complex and changes in any one theme produce a cascade of effects on the other themes. To better understand the effects of implementing our vision, we diagramed our food system (see attached photos) and considered how changing one theme to promote a sustainable food system through net-zero erosion would affect the other themes.

Culturally uniting around net-zero soil erosion has a strong influence on Policy by generating support for conservation programs; Economics by encouraging consumers to purchase from sustainable farmers; Diets by influencing consumers to focus on quality rather than quantity; Technology by shifting the focus of innovators; and Environment by enabling a cooperative approach between producers and consumers.

Improving the Environment through diverse, net-zero erosion practices influences Economics by protecting soil, the foundation of agricultural productivity; Culture by preserving traditional knowledge through active use of diverse practices; Diets by increasing nutrient density in food through increased nutrient availability in soil; Technology by demonstrating to consumers how innovation can positively influence their lives; and Policy by freeing up resources previously spent removing pollutants from drinking water.

Technological innovations in erosion monitoring influence Policy by enabling targeted spending on the acres most vulnerable to erosion; Culture by helping everyone understand the magnitude of the problem; Economics by providing a trusted means for verifying environmental services; indirectly on Environment by leading to less erosion; and indirectly on Diets by improving the food system.

Changing Policy to create a net-zero erosion product label will influence Diets by shifting products consumers purchase; Economics by adding value to commodity exports; Environment by providing clear reward for achieving net-zero erosion; Culture by providing institutional support for the movement; and Technology by increasing demand for innovation in this sector.

Shifting Diets to focus on nutrients over calories influences the Environment by increasing the diversity of crops grown; Policy by providing a new set of objectives; Culture by improving wellbeing; Technology by changing the direction of food innovation; and Economics by reducing healthcare costs.

Economically rewarding producers for reducing erosion influences the Environment by rapidly accelerating adoption of conservation practices; Technology by increasing the customer base for sustainable innovation; Culture by improving the economic outlook of rural communities; Policy by increasing the diversity of people motivated to speak out; and Diets by making nutritious food more affordable.

Soil is a foundational element of the food system that influences all six themes. Progress made with any theme will feed back into the others through positive feedback loops that help cascade Iowa to a resilient, sustainable food system in 2050.

Describe any trade-offs you may have to make within your system to attain your Vision by 2050.

In creating this vision, we sought to focus on what can unite Iowans to transform our food system: achieving net-zero soil erosion. There are many ways to advance sustainability and we need everyone doing all that they can. Below are examples of some of the tradeoffs that will need to be made and how they are addressed in our vision.

One of the key environmental tradeoffs is whether to focus on erosion or fertilizer pollution in the water. We chose to focus on erosion because of the potential to bring farmers and consumers together rather than setting up an adversarial relationship around fertilizers; soil is a fundamental element of the food system that has the potential to effect widespread transformation; and improving soil addresses both issues by reducing the need for fertilizers in the first place.

Politically, a grassroots approach with voluntary participation over an authoritarian approach will lead to change that is more resilient to shifts in elected leaders.

As the vision is implemented, erosion data that is public and precise will hopefully lead to transparency and provide motivation to inspire everyone. However, we want to highlight progress to avoid a culture of shaming. If needed, the data can be made semi-public in the way that financial credit scores in the United States can only be requested by those with a legitimate reason.

As more land is used to grow vegetables that feeds Iowans or support conservation initiatives, there will be a tradeoff in acres available to grow grain for export. However, the land targeted for net-zero erosion efforts are often the non-profitable acres for commodity growers and turning them into a diversified revenue stream will be a boon for farm profitability. For the rest of the world, there is already an average of 2,700 calories available per person per day. If hunger was going to be solved by producing more food in places distant from those who are hungry, it would have already been done. If Iowa produces less commodity grain and other regions of the world produce more of their own food, the economic impact of a slight rise in food prices would be more than offset by rising incomes and increased resilience within hungry communities that come from developing a more robust system of local food production.

As net-zero erosion certified food begins to enter the grocery store, it may be more expensive due to economies of scale. This will probably not be an issue for consumers already paying a premium for organic products. To ensure this is a movement accessible to all of Iowa, food aid programs could offset higher prices by giving a discount.

These tradeoffs and many more will need to be addressed over the long road to 2050. By working with a broad coalition, allowing for a diversity of approaches, and focusing on net-zero erosion as our common ground, we can unite as Iowans to keep making progress towards a regenerative and nourishing food system.

3 Years | Describe 3 key milestones that you would need to achieve within the next three years for your Vision to be on track?

Key milestones are:

Build Awareness. Net-zero erosion should be part of the vocabulary of every Iowan just like caucus, flooding, and corn-on-the-cob. Youth engagement is key to building momentum. Getting soil and erosion into school curriculums can go a long way. Partnering with organizations like the Iowa Ag Literacy Foundation can leverage existing education networks. A benefits concert like Farm Aid in the 1980s could be a hit. Engagement events with key stakeholders will help shift thinking in critical organizations.

Demonstrate Feasibility on Farms. Getting support from diverse stakeholders will require on-farm trials demonstrating the feasibility of this vision. Over the next three years, Practical Farmers of Iowa can demonstrate the feasibility of the net-zero erosion vision by linking farmers who track sustainable practices to markets that pay for these environmental services. Practical Farmers’ strategic initiatives team launched its first collaborative project with a supply chain partner in 2015. Today, PFI is a partner on seven different supply chain projects that reach 353 farmers and span 66,761 acres. PFI can build on this success to advance net-zero erosion.

Advance Erosion Monitoring Technology. In three years, Iowa should be able to construct a robust erosion monitoring network that is accurate down to the acre. This can be achieved by building on the existing Iowa Daily Erosion Project and partnering with private companies like Farmer’s Business Network or Indigo to leverage their existing technology for farm analytics. Once complete, this network can be used to identify the most critical 20% of acres that can have the largest impact on erosion and environmental goals. With the example from PFI trials, statewide conservation programs can begin to focus on scaling up these methods to the 20% of critical acres. This will provide the highest return on investment and provide practice in scaling up before making a statewide effort.

10 Years | What progress will you need to make—by 2030—that would set your Vision up to become a reality by 2050?

Scaling this vision across Iowa over the next seven years will take broad support. Youth who got engaged in 2020 will have grown into roles where they can make a difference. We need to continue growing the coalition of farmers, consumers, food retailers, researchers, NGOs and other groups that support this vision. This will entail educating consumers about the importance of soil and helping farmers understand how net-zero erosion practices can fit within the context of their operation. Practical Farmers of Iowa has a long history of using on-farm demonstration trials to educate about conservation practices and build partnerships to ensure implementation. Efforts to educate youth would need to occur in urban and rural settings.

By 2030, the erosion monitoring network should cover the entire state and be well calibrated with a decade’s worth of data. This will help everyone understand where erosion is still occurring, what the fundamental causes are, and where net-zero erosion has been achieved.

Data should be available from conservation programs targeted at the most critical 20% of acres.  It will be important to study these efforts to learn what worked and what didn’t. These insights will be critical to forming policy that can help scale up net-zero erosion efforts to the rest of the state by 2050. 

The markets for net-zero erosion products and carbon sequestration will need to grow beyond the connections made in the early farm trials. New startup companies will need to succeed in linking producers to supply chain buyers through technology in a way that can scale broadly. The creation of a Net-Zero Erosion product label would also help demonstrate the economic opportunities of sustainable practices.

Farmer adoption and consumer education can take time, but we hope that the win-win opportunities provided will help Iowa become a net-zero erosion state by 2050.

If awarded the $200,000 prize what would you do with it?

Practical Farmers of Iowa has been working since 1985 to equip farmers, consumers, and communities to build a resilient, sustainable food system. This work helped identify the key milestones described in the feasibility section. They will use the prize to make progress towards these milestones:

Demonstrate Feasibility on Farms. PFI will build on its experience supporting on-farm research to link forward thinking farmers who track sustainable practices to markets that pay for these environmental services. They have found that farmers are very interested but hesitant to take on the cost and labor burden for implementing new sustainability practices. Splitting the costs has been an effective way to help farmers try something new. Once they gain experience and see the benefits from the first season, farmers often continue to implement practices on their own.

Build Awareness. On farm demonstrations have been the most effective tool for sharing knowledge with farmers, policy makers, consumers and other stakeholders in the food system. While this approach is adapting to put safety first with COVID, PFI will fund field days that showcase net-zero erosion systems and publish results to reach a broader audience. Please see PFI’s 2019 Annual Report for an example.

Advance Erosion Monitoring Technology. PFI will continue to support Iowa State University in their efforts to advance an Iowa Erosion Monitoring Network. While PFI is not the lead in these efforts, they will use their voice to help share the importance of monitoring erosion.

If you are chosen as a Top Visionary, The Rockefeller Foundation would like to share your Vision widely with a global audience. What would you like the world to learn from your Vision for 2050?

Iowa is a can-do state and we know we have a lot to do. If we apply the same ingenuity, effort, cooperation, and dedication that has made us a global leader in the production of corn, soybeans, pork and eggs, we can simultaneously, in parallel, build more resilient and sustainable food systems in Iowa that better serves farmers, consumers, rural communities, and cities.

Striving to achieve net-zero soil erosion can be our common ground for building a resilient and sustainable food system by 2050.

We take the Sustainable Development Goals seriously and know agriculture in Iowa has a significant role to play. Hopefully, progress made in Iowa can inspire others.

Youth will live in the future food system of 2050 and are the ones to make change happen.

Please share a visual that communicates the structure and operation of your food system in 2050. Describe the visual.

Food systems are incredibly complex and changes in any one theme produce a cascade of effects. We created system diagrams for 2020 and 2050 to understand how the stakeholders connect and influence each other. To artistically tell the story of our systems thinking we created a cartoon version of each diagram with people, ideas, connections, and outside influences that may impact the system. 


4 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Spam
Photo of Itika Gupta
Team

Hi Mark Gee  congratulations on putting together an impression Vision with is focused and youth led. For refinement, how might you detail out your Vision detail out the feasibility with respect to price of farming as growing practices change?

View all comments