Friday, 22 February 2013

Losing Iowa's land -- by Jim Kessler

Jim Kessler grew up in a Quaker family on a dairy farm near Oskaloosa, Iowa. He became interested in environmental issues during graduate school at the University of Northern Iowa while working on his MA in Biology. Kessler has been involved in tallgrass prairie and native plant restoration for 35 years, the last 15 on his and his wife’s 30 acres near Grinnell, Iowa. He says, "I view myself as a simple Quaker man who intensely loves Jesus and tries to live a servant life in that awareness daily."

tall grass prairie (photos by J Kessler)

a steep hillside pasture that was plowed last fall; clay shows where topsoil eroded
The agrofuel threat to biodiversity isn't just happening in the underdeveloped world. (1) It's a huge threat to biodiversity and topsoil in the US Midwest and I suspect parts of Canada. (2)  Worldwide, marginal lands (grasslands) are rapidly being plowed. (3)  

erosion: Iowa State U
runoff and dead zone: Buckner
In my part of Iowa I've observed many permanent pastures being ripped up to raise corn and soybeans. Much of this land is highly erodible. (4) Though our topsoil in some places is 100 feet deep, the richest land in the world, Iowa loses an average of 5.2 tons per acre per year. (5)

erosion: Iowa Environmental Council
This is a huge threat to biodiversity. Corn and soybean fields provide lots of food for wild turkeys, raccoons, and deer, but almost no food for most other native wildlife species. 

Biologists who study the amount of habitat needed by species predict that for every 1% of habitat that is converted to raising crops, we will eventually lose 1% of our wildlife species to extinction. Also, grasslands sequester carbon. Well managed grazed grasslands reduce soil erosion and contribute very little to the dead zones in our oceans. I'm beginning to understand that agrofuels are a losing proposition for us and the planet. My sense of urgency led me to give talks and workshops about re-establishing Native Plants in order to
  • respond locally to the 6th great extinction crisis
  • reverse the decline in native migratory songbirds
  • stop destruction of wildlife habitat and biodiversity
  • maintain pollinator populations to increase food security. 
And I am trying to set up a nonprofit to reestablish native plants in my region, Empowering Nature and People: all workshop fees and consulting charges will be donated to organizations like Right Sharing of World Resources that help the poor. 
Corn and soybean profits will eventually crash because of oversupply. I hope then farmers will turn cropland back into native grasslands through the Conservation Reserve Program unless the radical right succeed in their campaign to defund it. 

1. Agrofuel land grabs in Africa: UK Guardian 31 May 2011
Growing jatropha for agrofuel, Ivory Coast: 
courtesy UK Guardian and Kambou Sia/AFP/Getty Images
2. Washing Away the Fields of Iowa, NYT 4 May 2011; statistics and Iowa erosion map, Iowa Environmental CouncilCorn And Soybeans Are Conquering U.S. Grasslands, NPR 19 Feb 2013; King Corn Mowed Down 2 Million Acres of Grassland in 5 Years Flat, Mother Jones 20 Feb 2013.
3. The LULUCF program threatens to promote further land grabs, agrofuel and GMO plantations worldwide, in return for carbon credits. This will give pollution permits to fossil-fuel industries, load poor countries with debt, and do nothing to save biodiversity or halt climate chaos: a lose-lose-lose proposition. 
4. Monica Buckner, Montana State U, The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.
5. photo and statistic: Iowa State University.

Further reading
Wikipedia on Tallgrass prairie
Tallgrass Prairie Center, University of Northern Iowa 
Sean Garrity's short-grass buffalo prairie in MT 
Frank and Deborah Popper's proposal for a shortgrass Buffalo Commons in 10 High Plains states

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