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Fields of dreams: Agriculture, economy and nature in Midwest United States biofuel production

  • Year: 2011
  • Author: Gillon, Sean Thomas
  • Journal Name: ProQuest Dissertations and Theses
  • Publisher: University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Published Location: United States -- California
  • ISBN: 9781124967783
  • Country: United States
  • State/Region: Iowa

This work explores the social and ecological dimensions of recent biofuel production increases in the United States (US), focusing on the case of Iowa. Biofuels are proposed to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, improve US energy security, and support rural economies. Little research has examined how increased US Midwestern biofuels production will change social and ecological outcomes at farm and regional levels or interact with broader governance processes at the nexus of agriculture, energy and environment. These broad questions guide my research: (1) How does biofuel production reconfigure agricultural practice and landscapes in Iowa? (2) What are the costs, benefits and risks of increased biofuels production as seen by farmers and rural residents, and how do these factors influence farmer decisions about agriculture and conservation practice? (3) How and with what effects are biofuels initiatives constituted as a form of environmental governance through scientific knowledge and practice and political economic dynamics? To address these questions, this research integrates both qualitative and quantitative methods, drawing on a political ecological approach complemented by agroecological analysis and theoretical insights from geographical analyses of nature-society relations. Quantitative analysis focuses on changing land use patterns in agriculture and conservation practice in Iowa. Qualitative methods include extensive interviews, participant observation, and policy and document analyses. Fieldwork focused on Northeastern Iowa to understand regional changes in agricultural and conservation practice, the renegotiated position of farmers in agriculture and biofuel production, and biofuel industry development. I find that biofuel production presents significant social and ecological challenges for rural places of production. Longstanding, unequal political economic relations in industrialized agriculture limit rural economic benefits. I describe how biofuel governance focuses on scientific practices that legitimize biofuel production for their capacity to marginally reduce greenhouse gas emissions, despite biofuels' agroecological consequences outside this regulatory purview. These consequences include pressure on conservation and agrienvironmental practice, which could be better supported through existing, highly effective, place-based, democratic institutions dedicated to stewarding the resources upon which agricultural livelihoods depend.

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