Inform to Inflame?


Your graphic story on the Snake River (HCN, 8/4/14) provides a chilling overview of the impacts of industrial agriculture on one of America’s most important river systems. While well written, Manning’s article left me wondering whether the goal was to inform or inflame.

The dominant ag systems in southern Idaho are surely not sustainable in their current form for two clusters of reasons. First, because three of the essential factors of production — water, labor and fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and fuel — are becoming scarcer and more expensive. And second, even in Idaho, there is a tipping point beyond which citizens will say, “Enough; time for a change.”

I wish the article had focused more on solutions. My crystal ball is no more prescient than anyone’s, but a positive trajectory of change throughout the basin will likely entail:

Diversification of cropping patterns, with fewer acres planted in water- and nitrogen-hungry crops (corn, potatoes), and more with soil-building, nutrient-dense crops (alfalfa, edible beans, onions, squashes, melons);

Gradual reduction in the density of dairy cows per acre, to half of current levels;

A shift from grain- and concentrate-based diets for dairy cows to greater reliance on pasture and forage-based feeds;

A transition to organic production, especially for dairy and higher-value vegetable and fruit crops destined for children’s food or for export;

Significant investments in water conveyance, irrigation technology and water storage that increase the supply of water, while also increasing the value of food produced per acre-foot of water;

Adoption of technology that will reduce reliance on herbicides and insecticides, increase fertilizer efficiency and better control erosion — a set of benefits that will eventually make it possible to return water to the Snake that’s nearly as clean as the water drawn from it.

The story’s cynicism and, in places, hyperbole, do little to prepare or inspire HCN readers to roll up their sleeves and become part of the solution. How about another piece focused on some of the exciting changes starting to take hold in the region and what people can do to accelerate that change?

Chuck Benbrook

Troy, Oregon   

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