Des Moines Fights to Keep Its Wa­ter Clean

En­vi­ron­ment ▶ A wa­ter util­ity is su­ing to stop ni­trate pol­lu­tion from up­state ▶ “We were ac­cused of be­ing ev­ery­thing but al-qaeda mem­bers”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Focus On / Agriculture -

In the early spring of 2014, two lab work­ers for the Des Moines Wa­ter Works climbed into a truck and drove north. They pulled over on High­way 20 where the road crosses Cedar Creek, made their way to the wa­ter’s edge, dunked a cup at­tached to a pole, then poured the con­tents into a con­tainer. It was the first of 40 out­ings over the next nine months to col­lect sam­ples from creeks, ditches, and drainage out­lets— 72 lo­ca­tions in all—amid the corn and soy­bean fields north of Des Moines.

An anal­y­sis of the sam­ples con­firmed what the util­ity’s em­ploy­ees had long sus­pected: Ni­trate from farm fields was flow­ing into the Rac­coon River, one of the pri­mary sources of drink­ing wa­ter for Des Moines. A form of ni­tro­gen, ni­trate is a source of nour­ish­ment for plants. Farm­ers ap­ply it to crops

for a knock­out,” Stowe says, re­fer­ring to the op­po­nents of his law­suit. “What we are look­ing for is se­ri­ous ac­count­abil­ity and recog­ni­tion that this is a pub­lic health is­sue that will not go away based on a vol­un­tary pro­gram.” �Andrew Martin Kenya, Mozam­bique, South Africa, Tan­za­nia, and Uganda, the com­pany— in col­lab­o­ra­tion with, among oth­ers, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion— is test­ing corn va­ri­eties that hold up bet­ter against dry weather and in­sects. Mon­santo’s Wa­ter Ef­fi­cient Maize for Africa project is as much about do­ing well as it is about do­ing good. “The long-term growth has to be looked at as a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity,” says project di­rec­tor Mark Edge, whose work in­volves hy­brid seeds rather than the ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied va­ri­eties Mon­santo pro­duces, which are con­tro­ver­sial on the con­ti­nent. “The short-term chal­lenge is creat­ing the mar­ket and un­der­stand­ing what in­vest­ments can do that,” he says.

China has been driv­ing global food trends for al­most two decades, and In­dian di­ets are be­gin­ning to move world mar­kets. But the big­gest longterm pay­off for agribusi­ness may be in Africa. Its pop­u­la­tion is set to more than dou­ble by 2050, to 2.5 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to United Na­tions pro­jec­tions.

Mon­santo ri­val Dupont, which is big­ger in Africa, has its own Ad­vanced Maize Seed Adop­tion Pro­gram to shift farm­ers to­ward hardier seed va­ri­eties. Cargill, the world’s big­gest grain trader, last year ex­panded an an­i­mal-feed fa­cil­ity in South Africa. Olam In­ter­na­tional, among the world’s largest food traders, is boost­ing its in­vest­ments in branded foods, in­clud­ing Tasty Tom tomato paste and Pearl bis­cuits. Agco, the world’s third-big­gest maker of farm ma­chin­ery af­ter Deere, is de­vel­op­ing small, so­lar-pow­ered cool­ing fa­cil­i­ties— a huge need in Africa.

The raw in­gre­di­ents for an agri­cul­ture boom are in place. Africa has the world’s most un­used farm­land. Crop yields badly trail those in the de­vel­oped world but could be im­proved quickly with bet­ter seeds and fer­til­iz­ers. “We see clear po­ten­tial for Africa to feed its vi­brantly grow­ing pop­u­la­tion,” says Tim Bodin, an econ­o­mist for Cargill.

Gen­er­a­tions of sub­sis­tence farm­ing have left soil de­pleted of nu­tri­ents. Howard Buf­fett, son of Berk­shire Hath­away Chair­man War­ren Buf­fett, has called for a “brown rev­o­lu­tion” to re­store soil health in Africa as part of the more than $700 mil­lion he’s pledged to com­bat global hunger over the next decade. The Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of Congo and Rwanda top the list of coun­tries where his epony­mous foun­da­tion is work­ing to im­prove farm­ing prac­tices and link grow­ers to mar­kets.

The re­gion also suf­fers an in­fra­struc­ture deficit—whether it’s stor­age si­los, prop­erly main­tained roads, or ship­ping ter­mi­nals. Says Mon­santo’s Edge: “You wouldn’t be­lieve how dif­fi­cult it is to trans­port 2 tons of grain 20 miles in Kenya,” one of East Africa’s more de­vel­oped coun­tries. Across the con­ti­nent, the amount of grain that spoils af­ter har­vest would feed 48 mil­lion peo­ple a year.

Gov­ern­ment rules are an­other ob­sta­cle to devel­op­ment. With global food prices at their lowest since 2009, drought- stricken African coun­tries could ramp up im­ports. But in coun­tries such as Zim­babwe, which said in Fe­bru­ary that it wouldn’t ac­cept GMO corn for food relief, reg­u­la­tions de­signed to in­su­late lo­cal farm­ers from global com­pe­ti­tion make ship­ments from abroad more ex­pen­sive, says Maximo Torero, mar­kets and trade di­rec­tor at the In­ter­na­tional Food Pol­icy and Re­search In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton.

The hur­dles threaten to over­whelm in­vest­ment, which is why global agri­cul­ture com­pa­nies say they can’t fund Africa’s farm boom on their own. “You need each piece of the puz­zle to fit cor­rectly,” Edge says. “It’s not only go­ing to come from agri­cul­tural com­pa­nies, though we are a piece of that puz­zle.”

The bot­tom line Des Moines’s wa­ter util­ity is su­ing up­stream coun­ties to re­coup the $7,000 per day it some­times spends to fil­ter out ni­trate.

Com­pa­nies weigh­ing whether to in­vest in Africa may be tempted to wait un­til higher prices jus­tify it, rather than plow­ing money in now, when lower com­mod­ity prices make riskier in­vest­ments less at­trac­tive. The pa­tience of early in­vestors will be re­warded, says Paul Schick­ler, pres­i­dent of Dupont Pi­o­neer, the com­pany’s seed divi­sion. Agribusi­ness’s big­gest con­tri­bu­tion is to blend global re­sources with re­gional needs, so the prob­lem of cli­mate change can be man­aged on the ground by the farm­ers af­fected by it. “You won’t be able to im­port enough food to feed Africa sus­tain­ably,” Schick­ler says. “We can help de­velop lo­cal so­lu­tions.” �Alan Bjerga

Farmer-owned agri­cul­tural co­op­er­a­tive


Head­quar­ters In­ver Grove Heights, Minn.

$781 mil­lion The bot­tom line Global food and agri­cul­ture com­pa­nies are turn­ing to­ward Africa, whose pop­u­la­tion is ex­pected to dou­ble by 2050.

One of the co-op’s fuel re­finer­ies

in 1931

Earn­ings, fis­cal 2015:

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