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Iowa-An Endangered Environment

Written by Keely Driscoll

In a study carried out by Iowa State University titled Effects of Agricultural Development on Biodiversity: Lessons from Iowa, Bultena et al. states:More than 30,000 plant and animal species face possible extinction worldwide and some forty to a hundred species become extinct every day”

Iowa - my home. At times, I wonder what it looked like 200 years ago when it could sustain such biological diversity that it did, as the prairie that it was prior to colonial settlement. In Iowa Prairie- An Endangered Ecosystem, Smith addresses where the decline of Iowa’s environment began,”In retrospect, it might be conjectured that the demise of the tall-grass prairie began in April 1832 with an ill-advised attempt by Chief Black Hawk and his tribe to return to their ancestral lands to maintain a vanishing way of life. Prior to that attempt the Iowa region was controlled by Native Americans and was off-limits to all but a few Euro-American settlers who had gained their confidence. The last thin line of defense of the Iowa prairie crumbled 15 weeks later at the mouth of the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin when hundreds of Sauk men, women, and children were forced into the Mississippi River at bayonet point and slaughtered (Smith).”

Prior to removal, the Tribal Nations that resided here in the great plains; a place where vast diversity and tall-grass prairies once flourished. Neither of those things can be found in Iowa anymore. Smith goes on to conclude the disturbing alterations that took place immediately after Indian removal, ”Within 70 years after settlement virtually all of the vast prairie landscape was gone. Only scattered fragments of the 30 million acres of original Iowa prairie remain (Smith).”

Today, as witnessed in Iowa, there should be no doubt that we as humans have an enormous impact on our environments and the resulting climate. On March 13th, my co-worker Alexandrea spoke on the international Invisible Hand panel with Mark Ruffalo, on the rights of nature. The rights of nature are a recently revitalized legal basis that the earth, systems, and non-human organisms in nature hold inherent rights. Numerous Tribal Nations around turtle island held treaties with nature prior to the establishment of the United States of America. Within our Tribal Nations and communities, the process of mindful decision-making has always been an essential part of our belief systems. The idea of sustainability is engraved within respect we are taught to hold for the systems and living beings that enable our survival; this way of thinking results in the kind of responsibility our populations take on, as caretakers of the earth.

After removal, my tribe returned to Iowa and purchased land that would become the established Meskwaki Settlement in 1857. These are the lands of our sovereign nation; and because it is privately-purchased land, it is not a reservation. The settlement is somewhere I am proud to be from; it is my community, where I went to school, and where we hold our annual powwows. It is thanks to the endeavors of my ancestors who returned to Iowa and re-establish our rights to be here, that my family and I are able to grow our traditional corn varieties on the settlement over the summer.

During the year, I attend the University of Iowa, majoring in International Studies with certificates in Sustainability and Native studies. I feel now that it is important to address the dichotomy, that I, and many college students experience between the information that scientists and academia are teaching, and what our general populations here in Iowa are choosing to accept. What Iowan farmers who chose to politicize climate change must realize, is that we are on their side too.

In the United States of America, we trust Iowan farmers to provide for us. Now, it’s time for them to trust us too when we say that we want sustainable change and we need it now.

The midwest has been transformed into farmland essential for providing the nation with most of its corn and soybean resources. A study conducted in 2015 titled: Farmers and Climate Change: A Cross-National Comparison of Beliefs and Risk Perceptions in High-Income Countries, which focused on farmers in Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States found that, “Midwestern farmers are the least concerned with only 22 % of them thinking that their farm operation will be harmed by climate change (Prokopy).” Some attributing factors to the delayed recognition of climate change among farmers could include: the presence of crop insurance policies, technological advancements in agriculture, or market adjustments. This perception of the majority of Midwest farmers is puzzling and concerning, considering the wide range of research and scientific proof of how climate change will affect not just farming, but the world as a whole.

The United States is the second-largest contributor in the world to greenhouse gas emissions, but won’t be among the first to feel the consequences. As the global capitalist economy further moves towards consumerism and materialism, we are becoming more disconnected from nature. American’s rely on less than 2% of the population, many of whom still deny the realities of climate change for higher profit margins rather than make efforts to shift toward more sustainable alternatives. These alternatives are right at our fingertips with developing technologies, academia, and global awareness. We are more capable than ever to predict threats that could seriously harm our ability to maintain sustainable farming systems.

When it comes to costs: it makes sense that farmers would side with the cheaper alternatives. But unsustainable farming practices are cheaper for the individual, not the collective. We must start thinking about greater consequences and costs of climate change. Yes, we rely on farmers for the foods we eat, but we are also directly affected by the processes: from the resulting emission to the nitrate runoff that goes into our drinking water and rivers. We all hold a bigger stake than we know when it comes to the practices that Iowan farmers carry out.

The unsustainable farming practices that have been allowed to take place in Iowa, are just a single instance in the overwhelming worldwide shifts that have taken place over the last 200 years. Iowa is a model demonstration; revealing the true influence that we humans are having on our environment and the resulting climate during this ongoing Anthropocene.

So farmers, we as Iowans who also hold a stake in the agriculture industry, are asking for sustainable change and we are asking for it now.

Our future generations are relying on you to care for the same lands, environment, and climate that they will need to survive.

Sustainable solutions require a one-question, pass/fail assessment: Will this benefit or harm the next seven generations?


Bultena, Gordon L., et al. "Effects of agricultural development on biodiversity: lessons from Iowa." (1996).

Prokopy, Linda S., et al. "Farmers and climate change: A cross-national comparison of beliefs and risk perceptions in high-income countries." Environmental management 56.2 (2015): 492-504.

Smith, Daryl D. "Iowa prairie-an endangered ecosystem." Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science. Vol. 88. No. 1. 1981.

Smith, Daryl D. "Iowa prairie: original extent and loss, preservation and recovery attempts." Journal of the Iowa Academy of Science: JIAS 105.3 (1998): 94-108.


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