Pollution Made by Nature: The Circulation of Nitrate Knowledge in Iowa Agriculture and Conservation

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Brianna Farber, University of South Carolina §

The North Raccoon River in western Iowa and a water quality monitor collecting data. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: Nitrates, a water soluble form of nitrogen, are vital nutrients for plant growth, and they are also environmental pollutants, contributing to problems such as the hypoxic zone in the northern Gulf of New Mexico. In Iowa, the elevated presence of nitrates has spurred efforts to reduce their flow within and from the state, through both voluntary and regulatory measures, from multiple stakeholders. Utilizing Science and Technology Studies (STS) and political ecology, I explore the circulation of a narrative about environmental relationalities—the “natural nitrogen cycle”—through ethnographic data and a discursive analysis of secondary literature, such as news articles and scientific documents. This research draws on thirteen months of ethnographic fieldwork throughout Iowa, where I worked with farmers, natural resource professionals, public figures, and concerned citizens on water pollution caused by industrial agriculture. In this paper, I trace the ways in which different stakeholders interpreted, manipulated, and re-produced research about the natural nitrogen cycle.

Until recently, fertilizer received the most public scrutiny for causing nitrate problems in waterways. However, Iowa State University researchers concluded that the problem was the current cropping system in Iowa, not fertilizer. Soil microbial activity converts nitrogen to nitrate, and corn and soybean agricultures leaves the exceptionally fertile soil bare of plants that could use these microbe-produced nitrates. Researchers contrasted this with perennial ecologies like the prairie that use these nitrates year round. Depending on the news source and their audience, writers utilized different discursive strategies to make specific parts of this research seem immutable and whole, a process that created two main narratives: either “nature pollutes itself” or “human activity drastically altered symbiotic ecological relationships.” However, more powerful stakeholders developed the former narrative, emphasizing soil fertility and soil microbial activity, and excluding the connection to the absent plant roots and prairie. This divergence appeared in my fieldwork, as the natural nitrogen narrative had more salience and range. Throughout this paper, I trace how and why these divergent narratives emerged, analyzing the discursive strategies utilized, intended audiences, the power of different stakeholders to circulate each narrative, and the broader ideological significance of each.

While nitrates themselves are far from the only or worst issue in water pollution, this analysis of them elucidates several issues. People’s interpretation of the natural nitrate narrative reveals the politics of culpability and accountability in environmental issues between farmers and non-farmers. Farming has a formidable, centralizing role in the Iowan sense of self, and people feel both nostalgic pride and resentment over that fact. This emotional divide has led to persistent searches for the root cause of environmental problems in Iowa, and in these searches, scientific research becomes a site of negotiation and territorialization. This paper contributes to STS and political ecological scholarship on circulation by examining the specific ways in which different stakeholders used the same scientific research to make opposing truth claims about agricultural-environmental relationalities and the relative power each truth claim had to circulate.

During my fieldwork in Iowa, people shared their theories about the root causes of environmental degradation, specifically nitrate pollution in waterways, ranging from misplaced public hysteria to the soil’s biological activity to corn and fertilizer. These theories relayed underlying beliefs about the nature of the environment and people’s place in it. In this paper, I discuss the content of two narratives about environmental relationships and the methods by which these narratives circulated. One narrative claimed that the Iowan cropping system caused nitrate pollution, and the other narrative claimed that the rich Iowa soils caused it. Both narratives used the same research from Iowa State University—which stated that the loss of perennial roots disrupted the symbiotic relationship between soil microbes, plants, the nitrogen cycle, and water—as evidence. I describe how, by paying attention to the use of scientific authority, common tropes, graphics, and narrative structure in various media and ethnography, I tracked the production of these separate narratives and explored their fit within different people’s existing ideologies.

Nitrate and nitrate strip test on water monitoring trip. Photo by author.

Part of my research agenda explores the difficulty and complexity of communicating scientific knowledge. In this paper, I consider the desires of different stakeholders within farming and natural resources conservation and how these desires affect their uptake and interpretation of new information. Many people wish to defend commodity agriculture against negative public opinion. Some groups wish to maintain the current dominant farming system, while others wish to revitalize a more biodiverse landscape and thus change commodity agriculture. These various desires fundamentally affect the ways in which people interact with and accept knowledge. As fake and clickbait news proliferates, I argue that we as scientists and researchers must understand processes of circulation critically to defend the integrity of our work. Overall, my research explores the power dynamics informing the conceptualization of and efforts to address socio-ecological degradation, currently at the intersection of agriculture and nature resources
conservation. Examining knowledge circulation critically contributes to understanding these power dynamics.

In this paper, I respond to several conversations and calls (rather than debates) in environmental anthropology. At the AAAs this past November, anxious revelations about and explorations of climate change linked multiple panels and presentations I attended. In this paper, I describe competing conceptualizations of nature—either as an excessive and uncontrollable force for which humans could not be accountable, or a fragile system that produced enormous havoc when out of balance (particularly due to human activity). I spoke with other anthropologists who found in their fieldwork that people see nature as resilient and nature as self-healing as well. I’m fascinated by the consequences of all of these conceptualizations and how they justify particular courses of human action—doing nothing or something to change human livelihoods for specific environmental outcomes.

Farmers take break from crimping cover crops and planting soybeans to check progress. Photo by author.

This conversation factors into debates about accountability that span calls for environmental and social justice. Who is responsible for creating and subsequently addressing socio-ecological ills and injustices? These questions inform environmental and broad anthropological debates about social change, specifically why and how it does and does not happen.

Example of bare ground – nothing growing on fields, leaving them susceptible to soil and nutrient loss. Photo by author.

This paper responds to two other calls: to study among people with (political and material) power and privilege, such as from Laura Nader and Heather Swanson, and to bridge Science and Technology Studies (STS) and political ecology, as in the edited 2011 volume Knowing Nature. In STS, scholarly attention has been on production of scientific knowledge and, to a lesser extent, its circulation. In political ecology, the attention has been on the application of scientific knowledge. The scholars in Knowing Nature explore the productivity of using strengths from both theoretical traditions to discuss environmental knowledge as a comprehensive system. I see my paper as contributing to this merging as well as to critical studies of circulation, pushing against its naturalization. This critical study of circulation revealed one of the ways that power is exerted and maintained in Iowa, a place where industrialized commodity agriculture extensively informs livelihoods and identities. Commodity agriculture does not simply hold power and influence as a smoothly running system. Stakeholder groups and people constantly attempt to maintain it through strategies such as manipulating scientific research to blame soil for pollution rather than agricultural practices, while other groups and individuals attempt to contest these strategies. Documenting the successes, failures, and ambiguities of various strategies provides vital insights into mechanisms of power. Overall, my paper aims to contribute to current discussions about climate change, scientific knowledge, and distribution of power within and beyond environmental anthropology.

Brianna Farber is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. Her work engages with
United States agriculture, natural resource conservation, and science studies. She
received her PhD from the University of South Carolina in 2018. Currently, she is a
Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow with USC’s Bridges Humanities Corps.

This post is part of our series, 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.