Farm history • farming

Iowa Farms: Can We Move From Chemical to Biological Farming?

Written by Emily Fawcett
6 Minute Read
Published on Feb 06, 2023

Throughout decades of increasing demand, shrinking amounts of land, and an increasingly unstable climate, the landscape of farming has shifted — and not for the better. Farmers need to be able to make the most out of their crops, and chemical farming became more popular despite very real downsides to its practices. 

Biological farming and chemical farming are two distinct approaches to agriculture that have been heavily debated over the years. Chemical farming relies heavily on synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and biological farming is centered around using natural methods to grow crops. 

Using chemicals to maintain and grow crops might seem like an easier way to increase a farmer's yield, but it comes with a heavy price for the environment and the quality of our food. In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between the two farming styles and why we should move away from chemical farming.

Why Did We Begin Chemical Farming in the First Place?

Chemical farming in America has a complex history that can be traced back to the early 20th century when the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides became increasingly popular among farmers. They promised to improve crop yields and control pests and deer, but farmers didn’t realize the bigger environmental price they’d have to pay. 

At the center of this new agricultural movement was a chemist named Fritz Haber. In the early 1900s, Haber developed a process for synthesizing ammonia, which is a key ingredient in fertilizers that can be used across hundreds of sq. ft. of crops at a time.

This Haber-Bosch process made it possible to produce large quantities of ammonia at a low cost. This led to the widespread use of synthetic fertilizers in agriculture, which helped to improve crop yields and increase food production.

Another important figure in the history of chemical farming in America was Paul Müller, who discovered that DDT was an effective insecticide in 1939. DDT was widely used during WWII to control malaria and typhus among troops and civilians. After the war, it was applied to agriculture, and it became the most widely-used pesticide in the world. 

In the 1960s, concerns began to emerge about the negative effects of chemical farming on the environment and human health, thanks to the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Carson helped to raise public awareness about the issue and led to the formation of environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund.

As a result of these concerns, the United States government began to take steps to regulate the use of pesticides and fertilizers. The Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act were also passed in the 1970s, which further regulated (but did not prohibit) the use of pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture, including in Iowa farming towns like Ames, West Point, and Fort Dodge.

What’s the Difference Between Chemical Farming and Biological Farming? 

As we’ve mentioned, one large difference between chemical and biological farming is that one uses chemicals and the other doesn't — but the difference in impact is more significant. 

The Environment

One of the main differences between these two farming methods, which are commonly used on Iowa farmland in Mount Ayr, West Des Moine, and other areas, is their impact on the environment. 

Chemical farming is known to cause significant harm to the environment, including soil and water pollution and damage to ecosystems and wildlife. In contrast, biological farming is focused on sustainable practices that work in harmony with the environment. This includes the use of cover crops, crop rotation, and integrated pest management to maintain soil health and biodiversity.

While environmental damage has clear global concerns, this practice also has immediate local concerns. Destroying the surrounding ecosystem, including wildlife and the water table, has a huge impact on the farmer's land, potentially rendering their farms completely useless in a matter of years. 

Essentially, family farm owners and large corporations are squeezing too hard on their Iowa land and will likely run the available cropland dry. 

Health Impacts

Another key difference between biological and chemical farming is their effects on human health. Chemical farming is associated with a number of health risks, including exposure to toxic pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals have been linked to various illnesses and disorders. 

In contrast, biological farming does not rely on the use of harmful chemicals and as such, is considered to be a safer option for human consumption.

Why Is Biological Farming Better?

After acknowledging that chemical farming on Northern and Southern Iowa farmland leads to environmental damage and has noticeably negative health impacts on those who eat it, it seems that it would be clear that biological farming would be the clear winner. 

However, biological farming is still the underdog in the state of Iowa’s farming practices. 

Productivity and Farm Management

In terms of yield and productivity, many people believe chemical farming is more effective, especially for larger farm sizes, but this is not necessarily true. 

Studies have shown that biological farming can be just as productive as chemical farming — if not more so. This is because biological farming focuses on maintaining soil health and biodiversity, which in turn leads to more resilient and productive grains, veggies, and other crops grown by Iowans.

Consumer Demand

Consumer demand is shifting towards organic and biologically-grown produce, which can be more profitable for farmers. There’s been a strong wave of high-quality and health-conscious food choices becoming more popular. This means that even if farmers could grow more with pesticides (which they can’t), the natural and USDA organic crops would have higher value anyways. 

Switching to biological farming may open new markets for farmers and increase their revenue.

Stewardship of the Land

Despite the clear benefits of biological farming, it still remains a relatively niche practice. The majority of farmers still rely on chemical farming methods due to the perceived cost and time efficiency. 

However, as more and more people become aware of the negative impacts of chemical farming on the environment and human health, the demand for organic and biologically-grown produce is increasing. 

The concerns of chemical farming became highly publicized when many local Missouri farmers brought to light that the agricultural giant was knowingly damaging farmlands, producing unhealthy crops, and producing chemicals that were harmful to both the land and the farmers. However, the practice of chemical farming continues across the world. 

Here at 99 Counties, we believe in natural, healthy, biological farming practices and always strive for the highest quality crops and meats. Working with farmers who focus on biological and sustainable farming is our top priority. We’re doing what it takes to keep our environment clean, our customers healthy, and our farmers happy. 


Overview of the Haber-Bosch Process | Thought Co.

About the College | Iowa State University

Food and Pesticides | US EPA

Monsanto on trial again - Missouri Roundup case begins | The New Lede

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