Iowa and the Waitress cure for world hunger

What’s the cure for world hunger?  The Waitresses had a rock hit about the cure. The refrain was “Black coffee and cigarettes.”  This combination of inputs reduces hunger pains.  On my trips to the former Soviet Union, I’ve learned that some Russian collective farm managers passed out cigarettes and a little vodka to keep their workers going when food was short.


When the Waitresses came out with those lyrics, I was working with a bunch of twenty-somethings at Save the Children. We were trying to solve world hunger with slightly different methods.  Back then, most people believed that you could solve world hunger by giving hungry people food.

The logic then went like this: since America does such a good job of growing food, we should export it to hungry countries.  If they can’t afford the food, we should  give it to them.  American farmers were more than willing to provide the food for these hungry people.   Agricultural input companies rose to the challenge and came up with innovative inputs.

Today some of us Meadowcreekers are in Iowa observing the results of that logic. This morning I was on a bridge looking at a swiftly flowing, murky, steel gray Iowa river, unable to see lower than a couple of inches.  Two days ago, we were swimming in Meadowcreek’s aquamarine Blue Hole where you can see the bottom eight feet or more below the surface.  No way we would swim in most Iowa streams.

Even more toxic than black coffee and cigarettes, the Iowa solution to world hunger became fertilizer and pesticides.  On conventional Iowa farms, adding nitrogen fertilizer is the easiest way to increase yields. Herbicides are the easiest way to kill weeds.  Monsanto and other chemical companies have even found ways to insert herbicide resistance into crop plants  Now herbicides can be applied to everything and the crop will still survive.

One result has been cheap food.  Another result was high levels of water pollution Some counties in Iowa are 98% corn and soybeans.  Iowa is outranked only by Illinois as a source of nitrates to Gulf of Mexico–helping to create the largest Dead Zone in the world.  Per acre of land area, Iowa is the highest source.  Nitrogen fertilizer is applied in the fall to the rolling Iowa hills and is eroded into Iowa streams and rivers. Many Iowa cities are unlucky enough to be downstream from a lot of farms.

High nitrate levels can be deadly to infants younger than 6 months.  In “blue baby syndrome” infants develop a peculiar blue-gray skin color and may become irritable or lethargic, depending on the severity of their condition. The condition can progress rapidly to cause coma and death if it is not recognized and treated.

The disease was first diagnosed by a doctor in Iowa City, Iowa in the mid-1980s, about the same time as the Waitresses hit.  The use of fertilizers in Iowa has become a public health issue.

The Des Moines Water Works is spending more than $1 million a year removing nitrate from their water source to get drinking water safe enough for human consumption.  The Water Works has decided to go to the source of the problem and last year filed suit against three Iowa counties which are the primary sources of the nitrates in the Des Moines drinking water.

Some farmer groups are fighting the effort.  They don’t want to change the methods which enable them to produce food so cheaply.  Other farmers recognize that nitrates are valuable and shouldn’t be wasted by letting them erode into the their streams.

USAID under the Obama administration has come up with a much more sustainable approach to feeding the hungry: buy food produced as locally as possible instead of importing food from the US and Europe.  This Feed the Future program promises to reduce the impact on America’s drinking water and on fuel needed to ship the food to hungry people.

An even more resilient system would insure that hungry families are able to produce enough food to meet their own needs.  That’s a much more daunting task.  Our 300 page book details myriad methods for accomplishing this.  You can get it free here.

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