Does working the land wreck the land?

“Some people think that it does, and believe that agriculture and environmentalism must forever battle each other. TheyÕve obviously never visited the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County, Iowa.

The refuge offers clear proof that farming and conservation can coexist. ItÕs possible for the genetically modified crops of the 21st century to sit alongside the tallgrass prairie of prehistoric times, for the benefit of all.

At more than 5,000 acres, the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is the largest reconstruction of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in the United States. It provides a modern-day glimpse of ancient Iowa–a portrait of what our part of the country looked like when settlers started arriving in the 1800s.

The refuge is a testament to the vision of its namesake–a genuine Mr. Smith who went to Washington. Neal Smith is a former congressman who retired from public life more than a decade ago. He believed in the importance of turning some of our land back into its original form, for the sake of conservation and education, and he fought for the creation of this refuge. It appropriately carries his name.

The refuge sits in the middle of some of the richest farmland in the world. Weather, water, and soil are key ingredients. But the people who farm the land are the real secret to its high productivity. TheyÕre not only knowledgeable and dedicated, but they also use the very best practices known to agriculture. Most of the corn and soybeans planted and harvested in the area, for instance, are genetically enhanced to resist weeds and pests and boost yield.

In some spots, itÕs possible to experience double vision. On one side of the road grows cutting-edge, biotech corn, which is planted by farmers who use computerized maps and GPS devices. On the other side, the view looks like it did when the buffalo roamed. Sometimes thatÕs because the buffalo literally are roaming–the refuge is home to a herd of them, as well as elk, deer, pheasants, wild turkeys, badgers, and other animals.

It might be said that the Neal Smith NWR is a place where the present and the past meet. The reality is, the refuge isnÕt a part of our history Ð itÕs in the here and now, and it provides a compelling example of how our future will accommodate the twin imperatives of growing the food that Americans need and saving the land for our heirs.

ÒEverybody who has heard horror stories about biotechnology needs to visit this refuge,Ó says Gordon Wassenaar, a farmer who lives nearby. ÒIt proves that biotechnology isnÕt destroying the environment or bringing about the end of the world–itÕs coexisting in a place where weÕre restoring the prairie.Ó

As it happens, the refuge is a popular destination for foreign farmers who are visiting Iowa. Last fall, Wassenaar and I hosted a group of them who hailed from all over the planet–Australia, Germany, Malawi, Mexico, the Philippines, and so on. We put them on a bus and gave them a tour.

The buffalo probably made the biggest impression–a herd of those creatures can stink to high heaven!

Yet I know for a fact that our guests were also struck by the way old and new could thrive together.

Among anti-biotech activists, thereÕs a lot of panicky rhetoric over how GM crops threaten to ÒcontaminateÓ non-GM fields. This is just fear-mongering mythology at its worst. The refuge flourishes in its pristine condition without any worries. Seeing leads to believing, and simply showing them the refuge and its environs made a difference.

The refuge wouldnÕt even exist but for modern farming practices. Because of biotechnology and other innovations, weÕre able to get the most from the land–and because we get so much, we can afford to set aside large swaths of it, such as the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, for purposes other than food production.

Working the land doesnÕt wreck the land, but conserves it.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology www.truthabouttrade.org