College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

STRIPS: A Sustainable Solution for the Corn Belt

It’s hard to imagine maintaining the current food system without Iowa. Yet that state — symbolic of both the unparalleled richness of our continent’s agricultural potential and the mess we’ve made of it — has undergone a transformation almost as profound as the land on which cities have been built. A state that was once 85 percent prairie is now 85 percent cultivated, most of that in row crops of corn and soybeans. And that isn’t sustainable, no matter how you define that divisive word.

Incredibly, there is a scientifically informed, direct and effective planting tactic that can mitigate much of this. Called STRIPS, for (ready?) “science-based trials of rowcrops integrated with prairie strips,” it means just that: Take around 10 percent of your farmland (in most cases, the least productive part), and replant it with a mix of indigenous prairie plants. Then sit back and watch the results, which are, according to researchers and even some farmers, spectacular.

Lisa Schulte Moore, a researcher at Iowa State University, has been working on the principles behind STRIPS for more than 10 years. (In 2003, she worked with Matt Liebman and Matt Helmers, two other pioneers in making contemporary American agriculture more sensible; I wrote about Liebman’s work a couple of years ago.) “It’s well-known that perennials provide a broader sweep of ecological function than annuals,” she told me last week, “so our hypothesis was that if you put a little bit of perennials — a little bit of prairie — in the right place, you get these disproportionate benefits. That is, without taking much land out of production, you get a lot of environmental benefit.”

This opinion piece by Mark Bittman originally appeared in The New York Times, here.