Cud-Chewing Contrarians

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Did cattle evolve to eat grass, or is all that talk about rumens, abomasums and cuds  just a bunch of baseless, elitist, tree-hugger new-age propaganda? Don’t ask that question at Iowa State University, where Corn is not only King, it’s Master of the Universe. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, Ricardo Salvador discovered that too late. Salvador’s experience at ISU does not portend well for those who are trying to get our own land grant institution, the U of M, to treat sustainable agriculture with more respect.

I was a student at Iowa State in the mid-1980s when there was talk of forming a sustainable agriculture center as an antidote to some of the environmental (as well as social and economic) fallout from the fencerow-to-fencerow blitzkrieg that was launched the decade before. As someone who had covered the agriculture college as a reporter, attended classes there as a student and toiled in its test plots and laboratories as a technician, I never dreamed such an entity would be allowed within 100 miles of Ames, Iowa.

I left the country for a few years and returned to find it wasn’t all talk after all. In 1987, the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act imposed a tax on pesticides and fertilizers, providing the financial seed for the launching of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. And it was planted smack-dab in the middle of conventional ag academia: the campus of Iowa State University.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how desperate the conventional ag community was after the “Farm Crisis” of the 80s that a center named after the father of the land ethic was allowed to be located at the state’s land grant university.

And this was no mere “think tank” that produces innocuous white papers in some ivory silo. The law states clearly that the mission of the Center is to “identify and reduce negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of agricultural practices.”

Indeed, during the past three decades the Leopold Center has done just that, producing cutting-edge research on everything from local food systems and rural economic development to cover crops and alternative swine production.

Most recently, the Center has sponsored research into the role managed rotational grazing of cattle and other livestock could play in a more sustainable food system. I recently attended a couple of Iowa field days on this subject—it’s exciting what can be accomplished when farmers and scientists team up to balance livestock production and environmental health.

Ironically, it may have been grass-fed livestock production that sealed Ricardo Salvador’s fate. In 2009, ISU began the search for someone to replace Leopold Center director Jerry DeWitt, who was retiring. Salvador applied for the job, and seemed from the beginning to be a natural fit.

Salvador is a former agronomy professor at ISU and over the years has become well known in sustainable agriculture circles for his research and leadership. He’s now director of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Food Systems and Rural Development program.

Numerous well-qualified candidates were interviewed for the Leopold Center directorship, and it finally came down to two finalists: Salvador and Frank Louws, a professor of plant pathology at North Carolina State University. Louws has a strong research background but was not as well-grounded in sustainable agriculture, particularly Midwestern sustainable agriculture.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Salvador was the overwhelming favorite among the Leopold Center’s advisory board. (The advisory board consists of university scientists, farmers, government agency staffers and representatives of farm organizations.) But late last fall, ISU president Gregory Geoffroy, apparently ignoring the recommendations of board members, chose Louws instead.

Three members of the advisory board wrote President Geoffroy a letter of protest, but he stuck with his choice. As the Chronicle reports, the Iowa Farm Bureau had made it clear to Geoffroy that they did not want Salvador as the director of the Center. The dean of ISU’s ag school, Wendy Wintersteen, also told Geoffroy that “agriculture groups” in the state weren’t pleased with Salvador’s background in sustainable ag. Geoffroy told the Chronicle that it was important to have a Leopold Center director who could “walk the middle ground.”

An interesting job requirement, given the Center’s legislative mandate to  “identify and reduce negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of agricultural practices.” Accomplishing such a task requires stepping out of the middle furrow at times and questioning whether it’s headed in the right direction.

But here’s where things get really ugly: Louws turned down the position earlier this year, making Salvador the natural pick. But even after bringing Salvador back to campus for a follow-up interview, Geoffroy rejected him yet again, conceded the job search was a failure and appointed a sociology professor as interim director. It will be at least a year before the search for a new director proceeds.

What happened? As anyone who’s read the recently released documents related to the attempted censorship of Troubled Waters knows, it’s no surprise that land grant university officials will do almost anything to avoid offending corporate ag interests. Often, the “offensive” gesture comes in the form of simply questioning the status quo.

In the case of Troubled Waters, the film dares to present science that questions whether planting corn as far as the eye can see is good for the land both here and in the Gulf of Mexico. In the case of Professor Salvador, his misstep may have come when he dared to state a scientific fact about bovines.

During a presentation at the ISU campus, Salvador was talking about a research project in New York when he described in an aside meat “produced in the natural way that meat should be produced, which is on lands suitable for grasses and perennial crops.”

Oops. That statement alone probably wasn’t Salvador’s undoing, but the uproar it generated touched a raw nerve at ISU—so raw that even undisputed scientific fact has become radioactive. The Chronicle asked Wintersteen, the ag school dean, whether she thought cattle had evolved to eat grass.

Her answer: “I don’t have an opinion on that statement.” Wintersteen was trained as an entomologist, but as far as I know even bug scientists have to take a course or two in basic biology.

Wintersteen’s response, or non-response, is quite troubling. Whether Salvador was qualified to be the director of the Leopold Center is almost moot at this point. The ag dean’s refusal to answer a simple, no-brainer question on basic biology shows the extent to which corporate ag’s tendrils have reached into our land grant institutions.

Remember what the U of M’s ag dean said about commodity groups and their protests over even peer-reviewed science?

I think one of the most interesting insights about the Leopold Center controversy was offered up by Alan Guebert, the agricultural journalist and columnist. When Frank Louws was offered the job earlier this year but was waffling on whether he would accept it, Guebert wrote:

“Why? Maybe he’s uncomfortable that Big Ag put its thumb on the Iowa State scale to make him the heavy favorite. Maybe he worries that if Big Ag can deliver the job, it can take it.”

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