Since World War II, agricultural practices, especially in America and other developed nations, have relied extensively on the use of farming chemicals for nutrient supply and pest and fungus control. Over the second half the twentieth century, the benefits of such practices have become clear as agricultural yields have risen dramatically. Unfortunately, these benefits have also been coupled with increased environmental costs.
In Iowa, these costs manifested themselves primarily in the form of groundwater pollution. In the mid-1980s, nitrate contamination of groundwater threatened not only long-term environmental impacts, but put the future of the country’s largest corn and pork producer at risk. As it became clear that regulation techniques at all levels of government were failing to produce the desired degree of chemical use compliance, alternative methods came into question.
The purpose of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, created by the Iowa General Assembly in 1987, is to identify the environmental effects of modern agriculture, develop profitable farming systems that conserve natural resources, and work with the Iowa State University Extension to inform the public of new findings. The Center pursues this mission by conducting research, education, and demonstration programming. Guiding these efforts is the conviction that voluntary compliance with resource-conserving practices is preferable to government regulation and that sound science is the best way to support development of those practices. At the same time, the program seeks to solve problems stemming from the conflict between agriculture’s negative environmental effects and Iowa farmers economic well-being.
More specific goals and activities supported by the Center include improving farm management while reducing the impact of chemicals, developing alternative crops, expanding biological pest control, and identifying socioeconomic factors affecting agriculture. These objectives are pursued in a variety of ways. Competitive grants fund an average of 40 closely monitored projects a year. Interdisciplinary Issue Teams—comprised of six members including faculty researchers, University Extension staff, conservationists, and farmers—study more sustainable cropping systems, integrated pest management, animal and animal waste management. The Center also sponsors two educational delivery teams in central and east-central Iowa to promote public awareness and conduct conferences. In addition, the Leopold Center also produces a quarterly newsletter, research program reports, annual reports, news releases and other special publications.
In five years of operation, the Leopold Center has generated a large and growing body of basic and applied scientific knowledge about agriculture’s interaction with the environment and ways to reduce its impact. By creating unprecedented interactions among farmers, researchers and educators, the Issue Teams are making important inroads into issues facing sustainable agriculture, including cropping systems, animal management, integrated pest management, animal waste management and agro-ecology.