Public Health Farming

Iowa is struggling with some serious environmental health issues, most are water-related. From nitrates to microcystin toxins from harmful algal blooms, from pesticides to soil erosion, Iowa’s simple corn-bean rotation is inherently leaky, resulting in a cascade of issues that not only impact people but also the planet. Agricultural chemicals are used nearly ubiquitously in the state;  about 50 million pounds of herbicides are applied in Iowa annually.


There are numerous Iowa farms that are transitioning to, or have already adopted practices that require little to no pesticides, protect soil & waters, and are profitable.  These farms feature healthy soils, more habitat and biological diversity, long crop rotations, crop diversity, grass-based systems, and crop-livestock integration.  Long term studies demonstrate that these systems are far better for Iowa because they feature:

  • Higher yields
  • 88% reduction in herbicide use
  • 80% reduction in synthetic fertilizer use 
  • 50% less fossil fuel use
  • Significant reduction in soybean diseases
  • Better soil health and retention, which means less erosion and more resilience to droughts and floods
  • Much reduced nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution in our waters, diminishing the risk of cancers and threats of harmful toxins produced by blue-green algae

Clearly, what we have here is a non-traditional, group of innovative public health practitioners: farmers. We need policies that support this group’s work and encourage transition in that direction by many more land managers. 


Farming for Public Health ( https://farmingforpublichealth.org/ ) is a statewide initiative with several partner organizations, with the goal of building more understanding among Iowa’s public health professionals about ramifications of excessive pesticide use in Iowa, as well as agricultural strategies that solve for a pattern of soil health, clean water, biodiversity conservation, healthy food, rural economic vitality–collectively, public health.

The initiative is coordinated by Audrey Tran Lam, MPH, at the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education.  We organize farm field days highlighting farmer innovations, convene a statewide working group on pesticides & public health, and organize other educational events.  

We also oversee Good Neighbor Iowa (https://goodneighboriowa.org/), a statewide program that aims to reduce unnecessary urban pesticide use and to transform lawn-culture to encourage appreciation of diverse lawns as a way to protect child health, water quality, pets, and pollinators and biodiversity. More information for child care centers can be found on the Iowa Department of Public Health’s website, here: https://idph.iowa.gov/hcci/products 

For more information:

Audrey.tranlam@uni.edu 
319-273-7150