Field of Trees
Mother Jones|November/December 2021
The case for bringing foliage back to the Corn Belt
By Tom Philpott

AMERICA’S CORN BELT—a broad swath of land stretching from Nebraska to Ohio—ranks as the globe’s most agriculturally productive region during the summer months. Its farms churn out the bulk of domestically grown corn and soybeans, most of which goes to feed the livestock that satisfies our meat habit, makes cheap fat and sweeteners for Big Food, and produces the ethanol that constitutes about 10 percent of our car fuel.

It’s also an ecological basket case. Fertilizer-laden farm runoff pollutes rivers, lakes, and wells. Ultimately, these chemicals flow to the Gulf of Mexico, where they feed an algae bloom bigger than Connecticut that every year morphs into an aquatic dead zone. Worse, under assault from increasingly fierce storms, the Corn Belt’s fields are hemorrhaging its most precious resource, topsoil. In a 2021 study, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, estimated that more than a third of the region has completely surrendered its topsoil layer. Crop yields are already starting to suffer.

There’s a deceptively simple trick that could help counteract this ecological unraveling, one that could keep food growing and help suck up climate-warming carbon in the process: Incentivize farmers to plant a bunch of trees.

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