In the realm of the important-but-obscure, a place I’ve resided for most of my professional life, Chris Jones is a hero. A research engineer at the University of Iowa, Jones studies and writes with masterful expertise about agriculture, the environment, and water.
Put those three elements together, and consider that state and federal law essentially immunizes crop and livestock farms from responsibly managing their nitrogen and phosphorus wastes. The result is a disturbing but familiar American saga of plenty and peril, a feast of data, conflict, and stories about Iowa’s worst-in-the-nation water pollution. Jones has confronted it weekly in a widely-read and fearless blog housed on the university’s server.
“Nitrogen reaches the stream network as nitrate, which is a regulated drinking water contaminant and the Gordian knot of Iowa agriculture,” he writes. “Without a license to pollute the public’s waters with this contaminant, the corn/soybean/CAFO system can’t exist in its current configuration. I can confidently say that most people in the general public don’t realize this, but astute people in agriculture certainly do.”
A Prominent Voice in Water
Because he writes with grace and style, reports with precision, and has a platform tied to the University of Iowa, nobody has attracted more attention to the causes and sources of farm-related pollution than Chris Jones. “In my time at UI, no one has done more to educate the general public and advance dialogue around water quality than Chris Jones,” David M. Cwiertney, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the university, wrote on his Twitter feed. “His blog has been a strong, defiant voice demanding clean water for Iowans when there was no other.”
Earlier this month Jones’ run at the university came to an abrupt and unexpected end. On April 2 Jones announced that his university-based blog will shut down. Four days later he resigned, effective May 16. “I, too, am a 5th or 6th generation Iowan and see my rights as a non-farming citizen as being no different from those that farm,” he writes. “And whether your genes have been here for two hours or two centuries, I think your right to enjoy nature, and especially, clean water, should not be debased by the fact that you’re surrounded by farmable land. It’s not uncommon to hear some variation of “we’re a farm state, get used to it.” I reject that. And I think if the state is to have a prosperous future, it needs to be rejected by the masses. That rejection has been out in front of every essay that I have posted.”
Why this is happening has not been made plain by Jones or the university. Jones’ critics sit in too many places of influence to count. Every now and again they lean on university administrators, letting them know they aren’t happy with what Jones is writing. Two years ago, for instance, a blog post about how low-income and minority Iowans are disproportionately affected by poor water quality was condemned by Chad Ingels, a prominent Republican House member, as “race-baiting.” Ingels, then the vice-chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, threatened to withdraw his support from the university.
But if there is an effort to suppress Jones’ voice it’s about to get much weaker. On May 15 Ice Cube Press, an independent Iowa publisher, is scheduled to release The Swine Republic: Iowa’s Struggles with the Truth About Agriculture and Water Quality, a collection of Jone’s blog posts. “It’s my job to study agriculture and the environment and water,” said Jones in an interview for this article. “In every one of my pieces I try to present some new, some objective information about that.”
Big Subject Well Told
His is an expansive beat in a state that is a colossus of industrial agriculture. As an example of technology in advancing efficiency, and expert marketing to promote its world-leading production of corn, soybeans, pork, and beef, Iowa has no equal. Its biggest farms and livestock operations, helped by federal and state production incentives, are accumulating wealth in record amounts.
Still, the path to farm prosperity is dirtied by how law and practice enables scandalous mismanagement of Iowa agriculture’s gargantuan waste stream. Jones has elevated that scandal to statewide attention. He’s taken on the biggest and most influential players in Iowa agriculture who countenance the accelerating degradation of state waters and human health – the ultra conservative Legislature now dominated by MAGA lawmakers. The Iowa Farm Bureau. The state’s weak regulatory agencies. Corn growers and livestock producers.
The consequence of Iowa’s determined disregard of the toxic flow of farm-related nutrients is that the Hawkeye state, like India and China, is the site of the most polluted waters on the planet. And according to the 2023 Iowa Cancer Registry, the state has the second highest incidence of cancer in the country.
Jone’s reporting on what amounts to an on-going and reckless disgrace is rich in imagination, style, and a kind of smoldering, self-effacing, Midwest indignation. For instance, he takes note of Iowa’s feckless and expensive 10-year-old “nutrient reduction strategy,” which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to coax crop growers to idle land, reduce commercial fertilizer use, and plant cover crops and buffer strips to stem the gusher of nitrogen and phosphorus running into streams. “Four percent of the land in cover crops after eight years of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a kick in the crotch, let’s just be honest,” he writes.
He’s criticized the state’s love affair with ethanol and the mammoth acreage needed to grow corn, the most heavily fertilized row crop. Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus in commercial fertilizer ends up polluting Iowa’s surface and groundwater. Barely a single mile of the state’s streams is unimpaired. Ethanol, he writes, warps grain markets and food prices in the U.S. and all over the world. It elevated the price of farmland from $5,000 an acre in 2007, when the federal ethanol production program started, to $20,000 to $25,000 an acre. And it’s caused ecological consequences that are ridiculous.
“Soil erosion, nutrient pollution, degraded streams, lakes and drinking water, habitat loss,” he writes, “and to top it off, we indemnify corn production with publicly supported crop insurance and a whole host of other economic trusses that keep the herniated system from blowing out. The patient keeps limping along, in obvious pain but nonetheless determined to maintain its stranglehold on the public and on 11,000 square miles of Iowa land, 20% of our state’s area.”
Nor is the damage confined to Iowa. Jones reported four years ago that a major cause of the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River offshore of New Orleans is the billion pounds of nitrogen from fertilizer and manure running off Iowa farm fields every year, and growing.
“Ethanol must die,” he added in the interview. “Twenty percent of the state’s area is used for ethanol production. It’s insane. These guys are locked in. It’s affected the demographics. It’s affected the land prices. It’s affected the livestock industry. Ethanol is a real shackle on the system and it’s getting worse.”
Science and Prose Style
Jones comes to his work with the expertise of a scientist and the experience of a home-grown Iowan. Soon after his birth 62 years ago in Monmouth, Illinois his father, an Iowan and a clerk for the Burlington Northern railroad, and his mother, also an Iowan and a postal service employee, moved the family back to Ankeny, a small city north of Des Moines. He was raised there, the oldest of three children. Jones earned undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Montana State University. Before joining the university’s Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research Jones spent four years as an environmental scientist with the Iowa Soybean Association.
“I could never have said any of this when I worked at the Soybean Association,” Jones said. “They don’t think too highly of me now.”
Jones set up his blog immediately after joining the institute in 2015 and attracted a small and loyal group of readers. In 2019, though, he wrote a post about how the use of fertilizer and manure had increased as Iowa agriculture industrialized, leading to worsening water quality. The post attracted much greater readership than any previously. “That was the first one that was really read by a lot of people,” he said. “After that it just kind of took off.”
His work mixes scholarly consideration with engaging prose. Among his most relevant pieces, also posted in 2019, is a devastating treatise that positions livestock agriculture as a primary cause of Iowa’s water pollution from E.coli and other contaminants. The piece compares the quantity of fecal waste from livestock and poultry in Iowa to wastes from Iowa’s 3.2 million human residents. “Statewide, we have around 20-24 million hogs; 250,000 dairy cattle; 1.8 million beef cattle, 80 million laying chickens, and 4.7 million turkeys,” he wrote in “Iowa’s Real Population.”
“Waste from these animals would be the equivalent-sized human population that would generate such waste is staggering:
- Iowa hogs: equivalent to 83.7 million people;
- Dairy cattle: 8.6 million people;
- Beef cattle: 25 million people;
- Laying chickens: 15 million people;
- Turkeys: 900,000 people.
“In total, these five species generate the waste equivalent to that produced by about 134 million people, which would place Iowa as the 10th most populous country in the world, right below Russia and right above Mexico.”
“That was the first one where I have this sort of sardonic style,” Jones said in the interview. “Some say it’s a polemic style. At the time I kind of wrote that as a manifesto. It also was the first one that really agitated people.”
What does an accomplished researcher and writer do next? He keeps writing. For the time being Jones will post to Blogspot, and Twitter @RiverRaccoon.
— Keith Schneider
This article, which Bill McKibben noted on his “The Crucial Years” Substack column, broke the story of how MAGA lawmakers pushed one of Iowa’s top quality researchers out of his post at the University of Iowa. The university put up no resistance at all. I followed it up with this piece in The New Lede — In Iowa, a tale of politics, power, and contaminated water.