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Sierra Club Report Calls For Climate Adaptation Plan, More Investment In New Ag Markets

Amy Mayer/IPR file
Cover crops green up early in the spring and keep water and nutrients from running off the land. They're among the conservation practices that can help improve soil health.

Iowa’s Sierra Club Chapter has released a new report calling for changes to agriculture that will make it more sustainable environmentally and economically as the climate changes.

“Soil: Grounding Us in Transformative Systemic Change” recommends more conservation practices on farmland to reduce nutrient runoff and erosion, a moratorium on confined animal feeding operations and more opportunity for small, diversified farms. But it also outlines several policy goals including the need for a climate adaptation plan for the state.

Iowa Chapter director Pam Mackey-Taylor says the Sierra Club would like to bring together disparate constituencies, including farmers, state officials, food consumers such as restaurants, and environmentalists, to “collectively sit and say, what do we want our future to look like in a world that is changing because of climate change?”

She says some of the questions would include “how do you sustain farm incomes in the future? What kinds of things do we need to do to adapt? And how do we make sure that agriculture remains a part of our economy for the future?”

Mackey-Taylor says farmers could idle acres that are less productive and instead of putting seed and fertilizer on them, they could enroll the acres in a conservation program so they’re covered with plants that prevent erosion and nutrient runoff. The state’s economic development office could invest in small meat processors so someone wanting to raise a small number of animals could, and it could also invest in markets that would allow farmers to grow commercially crops other than corn and soybeans.

Mackey-Taylor says the many pressures on agriculture, including climate change, corporate consolidation and limited markets, create opportunity to find new ways forward that are better for farmers and for the environment. In recent years the concept of soil health has gained some traction even among non-farmers, but she says rebuilding the soil organic matter, as important as that is, will not alone create a sustainable way forward.

“We can’t get hung up only on soil,” she says. “We need to think about the bigger, broader picture and think of it as a system that involves a lot of pieces and a lot of players.”

Earlier this month, the national Sierra Club took steps to separate itself from founder John Muir because in addition to his efforts to protect wildlands he was known to denigrate African Americans and Native Americans and was associated with leaders of the eugenics movement. Many national environmental groups have recently confronted their lack of diversity and connections to racist leaders.

Mackey-Taylor says this moment calls for everyone to consider racial injustice and past actions.

“I think it makes sense for Sierra Club to do that close look,” she says, “and to mend the hurts and the harms that we’ve done and to move forward after that.”