by John McNally, Co-op Cook & Local Producer
The flooding that we recently experienced was made much worse by the corn and soy fields that surround our town. I must first remind you that those corn and soy fields primarily exist to feed the animals in feedlots and other CAFOs (concentrated animal feed operations). According to the USDA, over 40% of corn used in the US is for animal feed and more than 96% of the animal feed in the United States is corn*. My strong moral objections to CAFOs is a topic for another newsletter.
The other large contributing factor to the flooding that we have recently experienced is hard surface runoff. Hard surface runoff is when rain hits an impermeable surface and flows downhill. This is most noticeable in cities during heavy rains when rain water pools in low spots and overflows onto roads or into your basement. When you couple many miles of impermeable surfaces with antiquated storm water systems, you have a recipe for disaster.
Now for a bit of natural history. Illinois used to be prairie, wetland, and forest. All of these different biospheres were dynamic, self-sustaining ecosystems. These ecosystems could easily handle the rain we experienced recently. However, when an ecosystem is destroyed and land is stripped down to bare dirt for agricultural purposes, you augment the natural cycles and destroy the soil food web. Soil that is degraded from agricultural practices such as excessive tillage and the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides loses its natural ability to allow water to percolate through it. When soil is continually tilled, a hard pan forms. Degraded soil cannot absorb water as readily. In Illinois we have hundreds of miles of degraded soil in every direction. What does this mean? Your choices as a consumer affect your life and the lives of the people that you know and love in very substantial ways.
What are some solutions to these problems? Implementing regenerative agriculture techniques would drastically reduce these negative effects. Regenerative agricultural techniques include low or no till farming, cover cropping, and using biological inputs. Another solution is responsible and well managed animal grazing systems that invigorate soil health. The best solution for urban hard surface runoff is to implement a network of rain gardens throughout the city to help mitigate runoff. Rain gardens can absorb water as well as providing habitat for beneficial insects. Rain gardens can be as small as your parking strip or as large as the rain garden near the 2nd street basin in Champaign.
As a consumer you can support farmers that use regenerative techniques. Voting with your dollar is very powerful.
*Correction: A previous version of this article stated that over 95% of corn use in the US is for animal feed. The correct statistic, illustrated by the graph, is just over 40%