Common Misconception: Land for Food Vs. Land for Energy

Photo from qz.com: https://qz.com/1913868/why-agricultural-land-is-better-than-rooftops-for-solar-panels/

Currently Iowa is seeing a large number of solar programs and other renewable energy infrastructure coming into being. Two more cities have adopted the necessarily aggressive climate action plan of net zero carbon by 2050, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Our East national grid MISO, (Midcontinent Independent System Operator), has seen more requests for new construction projects this year than ever before. But where does the new renewable infrastructure get built? More often than not, a solar field will be put onto land that was previously used for farming. This has caused a group of “not-in-my-backyard” lobbyists to push against any new plans by pitting the idea of using land for food, something Iowa is historically good at and known for, versus using land for energy, a relatively new concept on the scales we are seeing today.

But we must look a little deeper. Deep into the soil, to be exact. Our agricultural practices have been exploitative in manner for decades, leaving the soil in eroded, compact and in a less productive state every year.1 Iowa loses 5.5 tons of topsoil per acre per year due in large part to the erosive properties of farming practices here. If it weren’t for the fact that Iowa was a part of the Great Plains for millennia, where millions of large grazers and wildfires built up a layer of topsoil thicker than anywhere else on the planet, we would never have been able to survive this long treating the soil as badly as we have been.

“The Coggon project (a solar project in Cedar Rapids) would indeed take hundreds of acres out of agricultural production but planners have taken steps to preserve the land’s suitability for farming in case the area is reverted after the initial 35-year program timeline. They also commissioned an environmental review and agreed on measures to prevent degradation.”

Excerpt from ‘Not in my backyard’ lobby threatens to hold up climate action plans in Eastern Iowa, Staff Editorial, The Gazette

This is exactly why using farm land for solar power, and then reverting it back to farm land after it has had a chance to revive, is a great solution to our energy/food dilemma. A solar field has to be built with enough room between the rows of panels that a service truck can maneuver through them without damaging them. This means that there is plenty of room to grow native habitat that helps revive the soils nitrogen content, build up hummus, sequester carbon and support our local and migratory pollinator friends that need us so desperately right now, almost as much as we need them.

Plantings can improve the aesthetics as well as the food production capacity of solar farms. Photo courtesy of Prairie Restoration Inc.

For anyone who might be worried about taking land away from food production to turn it into a solar field, consider this: 57% of Iowa’s corn crop isn’t even grown for human consumption, indeed, it isn’t even grown for food.2 It’s grown to produce ethanol. Most ethanol produced is used to reduce the polluting power of gasoline. But with every major car manufacturer moving toward the production of more electric vehicles that will require electricity instead of gasoline, a solar field replacing a corn field is the perfect next step to meet future fuel needs. Our country is currently trying to carve a path to carbon neutrality by 2050 in order to preserve a better life for those who would come after us, so moving away from gasoline powered vehicles that emit climate-change inducing pollution is only rational. But if you need more reason to support transitioning some of our agricultural land to solar fields, how about this?

In order to keep up with American’s hunger for meat products, farmers have to raise a lot of livestock. But what do we feed the livestock? You guessed it. Lots of corn. Our pigs, poultry and cattle can eat a wide variety of plant material but 33% of Iowa’s corn is grown specifically to feed them. According to these numbers, only 10% of corn grown in Iowa is for human consumption at all. Of course, it’s even less than that because besides ethanol and animal feed, corn is used to make things like shampoo, toothpaste, chewing gum, crayons, paper and many other non-food items.3 This means that if you look at the corn fields right outside of town, the chances of that corn becoming food for you is extremely slim. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the USDA, American diets are out of balance with more meat consumption and less fruit and vegetable consumption than required for optimal health. This means that transitioning away from growing food for livestock as well, is a step in the right direction.

Another reason that reducing the amount of land we use for food should not be considered a problem is 40% of the food we grow is wasted, it either doesn’t even make it off the farm, gets lost during production, is lost during distribution or retail, or at the consumer level when we purchase it but let it go to waste.5 (How many times have you bought a bag of oranges but only got around to eating half of it before it started turning?) Because of our obsession with beautiful, perfect produce, 33.7% of hand-harvested crops do not even make it off the farm.4 Because of modern agricultural practices that genetically modify or artificially breed plants to produce more food, we have been able to feed our entire population easily. People are indeed going hungry, but it isn’t for lack of something to eat, though that’s another social issue entirely. For now, we need to let farmers and solar companies work together to use the land in a way that makes the most sense, which just might be going solar. Consider contacting your local Planning and Zoning commissioners to let them know that you support farmers converting their land to solar fields because there are people out there spreading the misconception that we can’t afford to take farm land out of production, even though that is just wrong.

Food waste PDF from National Geographic
  1. https://iowastartingline.com/2017/08/14/iowas-black-gold-washing-away/#:~:text=The%20shocking%20estimates%20put%20the,inches%20of%20topsoil%20since%201850.
  2. https://www.sierraclub.org/iowa/blog/2021/10/planning-for-future-beyond-ethanol#:~:text=%E2%80%9CIowa%20leads%20the%20nation%20in,lower%20prices%20for%20the%20corn.
  3. https://www.iowacorn.org/media-page/corn-facts
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344919301296
  5. https://www.rubicon.com/blog/food-waste-facts/#:~:text=According%20to%20data%20from%20the,are%20lost%20at%20the%20consumer

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