Feeding The World–Iowa-Style

Local Food Processing Plant

Local Food Processing Plant

Iowa Can’t Feed the World;
Local Producers Can’t Either

The frequent jeremiad of big agriculture is about propping them up so Iowa farmers can feed the world. Political speeches at the recent opening of a first of its kind biorational manufacturing facility in Osage typify the pabulum.

“You can count on Iowa to feed the world; and more and more, to fuel the world,” said Governor Branstad last month at Valent BioSciences, a Sumitomo Chemical Company subsidiary.

“The world is going to demand more production and demand it in a way that is more environmentally responsible,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. (Read more about what’s going on in Osage here and here).

Valent BioSciences has had an Iowa footprint, so the biorational plant economic development expense has not received much public scrutiny. The author worked with employees at the company during a previous career, and they were unique in Iowa, and great people to work with. The new project is expected to create 400 temporary and 89 permanent jobs in Osage.

When compared to the botched economic development of the Orascom fertilizer plant in Wever (now called the Iowa Fertilizer Company), things went well for this plant start-up. One has to respect the fact that the Branstad economic development team has gotten better at controlling their messaging.

It is hard to know if biorational pesticides will be good for the long term future of agriculture. While everyone gathered for the opening ceremony in Osage must have believed they will be, the key to feeding a global population expected to increase to 9 billion people is growing more food locally. That’s where BFIA takes issue with the political pabulum about agriculture.

It makes no sense to focus only on food production in Iowa, or for that matter, California’s Central Valley, south Florida, Mexico, or anywhere where large scale production is prevalent. That includes Earthbound Farm Organic, purveyors of organic carrots, celery and other vegetables in Iowa supermarkets.

All we need can be grown much closer to home in temperate climates, and each step we take toward more local food production has a lower carbon footprint. Here’s the rub. Local food producers do good work, but have been unable to create a scalable model. Scalability is often anathema to their goals in farming.

A couple of years ago, State Senator Joe Bolkcom admonished a group of local food producers after research and development checks had been cut by the state to several large corporations. His advice was that research and development money was available from the state for local foods producers, if they could get their act together. Other Iowa legislators, including Representatives Isenhart, Staed, and Kaufmann have expressed a willingness to help local food producers in the legislature. The prerequisite is that local farmers align enough to give legislators something they can work with. It hasn’t happened despite some efforts by the Farmers Union, Practical Farmers of Iowa and others.

That’s where large companies like Orascom and Sumitomo Corporation have an advantage. They can create large, specialized projects because of their global perspective and footprint. That’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from local food production, and runs against the grain. It is an open question whether local producers will get their collective acts together.

What’s the resolution? Not sure there is one yet, but the world is seeking a solution to hunger and a growing population. There are small local foods projects on every habitable continent, but it is not enough.

As a community, we must move beyond politics, and begin working toward increased local food production. To do that, we have to think beyond our personal kitchens, farms and retail establishments, something hard to do in America’s consumer culture.

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