Iowa Crops Look Like Food — But No One’s Eating

Inside a system that traps farmers and screws up the planet

Mark Bittman
Heated
Published in
9 min readJul 11, 2019

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Vath Sok for Getty Images

I was in Iowa last week shooting for the PBS NewsHour Weekend “Future of Food” series. There are some good things going on — and you’ll see them in the segment, which will run later this summer or fall — but I left feeling depressed as hell. It’s bad enough that Iowa plays an outsized role in determining presidential candidates; its population, after all, is less than 1 percent of the country’s. But its impact on the food system is even greater, and may be even more difficult to change.

Iowa has its beauty: It’s not flat, as many seem to believe, and although the scenery is not especially dramatic, this time of year it’s lush, with free-flowing waterways everywhere. Iowa farmers generally do not irrigate, which distinguishes the state from California, of course, as does the astonishing dominance of the almost exclusively two-crop economy based on corn and soybeans.

Yet Iowa is unrecognizable from centuries ago, when Europeans took the land for themselves. What were prairie and wetlands are now neatly partitioned grids of intensely cultivated land: the model for the farm as factory. Through a system of underground “tiles” (pipes, really) in the northern half of the state, most of the water has been drained from…

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Mark Bittman
Heated

Has published 30 books, including How to Cook Everything and VB6: The Case for Part-Time Veganism. Newsletter at markbittman.com.