100512ho-Ken-Cook

Ken Cook president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group. (TONY LINK / GETTY IMAGES)

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Iowa's desert-like landscape is part of the problem with modern agriculture, according to one of the nation's most influential environmentalists.

Ken Cook, co-founder and president of the Environmental Working Group, said all he noticed Tuesday while driving from Des Moines to Cedar Falls was overworked farmland. Fields that mostly grow only corn and soybeans, get doused with too much fertilizer and chemicals, are heavily tiled and rarely get a break.

"I worry about the impact on the environment. I've never seen the landscape so heavily used," Cook said.

More than 100 people attended the University of Northern Iowa's Center for Energy and Environmental Education's celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring." Cook gave the keynote address, "Hunger Games: What Is It About Agriculture That's Eating Consumers?"

Cook said what's happening to the land is not necessarily the fault of farmers. He pointed to the industry as a whole and government farm policies that promote maximum production over the environment. That, in turn, has contributed to water quality, public health and obesity problems, along with other issues Americans face today.

It's not too late to save the soil and promote good health, Cook said. Consumers can invoke change with their spending habits and what they eat.

"Here, I think, is a fight worth having," Cook said. "This is a core value we all ought to support. Shopping for fresh, local food instead of buying fatty, salty, sugary, fattening fast food."

People can also play a part at the voting booth. Cook said keeping Americans informed about wasteful spending of tax dollars is why the EWG created the farm subsidy data base. The Washington, D.C.-based group, with field offices in Ames and Oakland, Calif., is known for the database that lists farm subsidy payments and recipients since 1995.

More than $250 billion dollars has been handed out to farmers in the last 17 years to produce crops and save the soil, but 70 percent of the money has gone to 10 percent of the farmers. It's a broken system that's created unintended consequences like obesity from cheap, processed food, Cook said.

Paul Johnson of Decorah is optimistic the nation's farmers and lawmakers can solve environmental and other problems facing agriculture. He said he's seen it happen as the former head of the national Soil Conservation Service and Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

As a former Iowa legislator, Johnson helped write the state's Groundwater Protection Act in 1987. "I think (farmers) can provide food, fuel and fiber, but also safe food and clean water. Let's get on with it," Johnson said.

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Ag business reporter for the Courier

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