Leopold director: Is governor’s carbon panel just a way to pay farmers?

By: - June 26, 2021 10:00 am

A farmer harvests corn near Slater, Iowa on Oct. 17, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The retiring director of an Iowa State University sustainable agriculture center this week questioned if Gov. Kim Reynolds’ newly appointed carbon-sequestration task force is designed mainly to increase payments to farmers.  

Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, also questioned the state’s slow progress on improving water quality and noted the ethanol industry’s tie to soil erosion from corn-growing, or what he called “putting dirt in your gas tank.”

Mark Rasmussen is retiring June 30, 2021, as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. (Photo courtesy of ISU)

Rasmussen retires June 30. Ecology professor Stephen Dinsmore will take his place July 1. 

The Iowa Farmers Union gave Rasmussen a chance to discuss the state’s pressing agricultural and environmental issues on a webinar this week.

Here’s his take on major topics: 

Carbon market

Rasmussen had tough words for Reynolds’ new carbon panel, which has no environmental-group representation but plenty of ag-group members. The panel includes Summit Ag Investors President Justin Kirchhoff. He is a colleague of one of the Republican Party’s top movers and shakers, Reynolds donor Bruce Rastetter.

Rastetter’s Summit Agricultural Group has formed a subsidiary to look into piping carbon from biofuels plants from Iowa and four neighboring states to North Dakota to be injected underground. A Texas company, Navigator CO2 Ventures, also is eyeing an Iowa pipeline.

Many other efforts revolve around farmers planting trees and other vegetation to sweep carbon from the sky. There is talk of broader sales of carbon credits.

Rasmussen wonders if the exploration of carbon markets and carbon sequestration is just setting up another subsidy for traditional row-crop agriculture.

“I think right up front we have to ask, is this a serious attempt to help solve the climate problem, or is this just another subsidy scheme?” asked Rasmussen, the Leopold director since 2012.

A lot will depend on what techniques are used to capture the carbon that otherwise would be lost to the atmosphere and contribute to the globe’s heating, Rasmussen said. 

“After seeing the governor’s announcement of the task force (Wednesday), I have a little bit of skepticism. Are we simply going to make payments based on farm practices and not necessarily on measurements of soil carbon?” Rasmussen asked.

“And then the other big question is, what if somebody comes along 10 years later and plows that ground up and, poof, a lot of that carbon goes back into the atmosphere? Is there going to be penalties for that?”

Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment.

Water quality

“We still don’t have (good) water quality. We still put too many nutrients into our drainage water. We’ve done a lot of work on this, but we’re not there yet.” 

Ethanol

“The other one that’s upset people is I like to use this term ‘putting dirt in your gas tank’ with regards to the ethanol industry. They never in their propaganda mention the impact that juicing up the corn market had on soil erosion in bringing highly erodable land into production and taking it out of growing grass or other perennials. So ethanol to me is not as green as they like to say it is, if you really look at the life cycle analysis, and include soil in that equation.”

Climate change

“The one thing that this has brought about is just showing us how vulnerable our annual row crops are with respect to planting time, pollination time, and harvest season. It can be too wet, it can freeze too early, or freeze too late. As the weather gets more erratic, things pop up that are a problem. 

“The other thing about climate is its compounding impact on water quality. If we’re getting warmer waters earlier in the season, that contributes to algae blooms and that degrades the water quality. Climate also is changing the rate at which our soils mineralize and release nutrients to the field tiles and so on. And so we’ve got to work harder with regard to nutrient management when climate is contributing.”

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.

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