Agricultural policy experts on Tuesday said the deadly dust storm that led to "zero visibility" for highway drivers this week in Illinois should be a "wake-up call" for lawmakers as advocates fight against industrial farming practices.
A day after at least six people were killed and more than 30 were injured in a pileup on Interstate 55 outside Springfield, the research and advocacy group Farm Action said the dust storm may have been driven by the chronic erosion of soil in rural areas, which has resulted as agribusiness pushes practices such as monocropping—a profitable method which can trigger the depletion of soil nutrients and the weakening of soil.
"Incidents like these are a tragic consequence of the shortsighted practices demanded by the monopoly corporations that control our agriculture system," said the organization in a statement. "Industrial practices which limit crop rotation in favor of monocropping and heavy herbicide application have resulted in unprecedented soil erosion and severe weather events—which cost us not only our agricultural system's resilience but human life itself."
Monocropping became more common in the middle of the 20th century, and herbicide applications increased from 18% of crops in 1960 to 76% of crops in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, further eroding soil.
Along with Farm Action, experts including Matt Wallenstein, chief soil scientist for gricultural company Syngenta, pointed to profit-driven industrial farming methods as a possible cause of the dust storm.
"Let's take this as a wake-up call to prioritize regenerative agriculture practices that can help prevent soil erosion and build healthier soils," said Wallenstein.
Farm Action has called on lawmakers to include in the 2023 Farm Bill provisions that would offer subsidized insurance programs and disaster payments for farmers and companies that use regenerative farming practices that limit mechanical disturbances and reduce the use of chemical herbicides and fertilizers.
Methods include "cover cropping," or planting crops in soil that would otherwise be bare after cash crops are harvested, in order to keep living roots in the soil; moving livestock between pastures for grazing; "no-till farming," in which the soil is left intact rather than plowed; and conservation buffers such as hedgerows "that act as windbreaks and habitat for beneficial organisms," according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"The deadly dust storm was preventable. Our staff mourns the abrupt and senseless loss of life, and our hearts go out to the communities of central Illinois," said Farm Action. "This tragedy should be a wake-up call to Congress to take action in the 2023 Farm Bill. We urge them to shift funds toward practices like cover cropping and conservation buffers, which protect soil from erosion."
"If these sustainable practices were scaled up and supported by U.S. farm policies," the group added, "we would see a safer and more resilient system emerge."
This content originally appeared on Common Dreams and was authored by Julia Conley.