Assessing alternative futures for agriculture in Iowa, U.S.A.

M. V. Santelmann, D. White, K. Freemark, J. I. Nassauer, J. M. Eilers, K. B. Vaché, B. J. Danielson, R. C. Corry, M. E. Clark, S. Polasky, R. M. Cruse, J. Sifneos, H. Rustigian, C. Coiner, J. Wu, D. Debinski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

105 Scopus citations


The contributions of current agricultural practices to environmental degradation and the social problems facing agricultural regions are well known. However, landscape-scale alternatives to current trends have not been fully explored nor their potential impacts quantified. To address this research need, our interdisciplinary team designed three alternative future scenarios for two watersheds in Iowa, USA, and used spatially-explicit models to evaluate the potential consequences of changes in farmland management. This paper summarizes and integrates the results of this interdisciplinary research project into an assessment of the designed alternatives intended to improve our understanding of landscape ecology in agricultural ecosystems and to inform agricultural policy. Scenario futures were digitized into a Geographic Information System (GIS), visualized with maps and simulated images, and evaluated for multiple endpoints to assess impacts of land use change on water quality, social and economic goals, and native flora and fauna. The Biodiversity scenario, targeting restoration of indigenous biodiversity, ranked higher than the current landscape for all endpoints (biodiversity, water quality, farmer preference, and profitability). The Biodiversity scenario ranked higher than the Production scenario (which focused on profitable agricultural production) in all endpoints but profitability, for which the two scenarios scored similarly, and also ranked higher than the Water Quality scenario in all endpoints except water quality. The Water Quality scenario, which targeted improvement in water quality, ranked highest of all landscapes in potential water quality and higher than the current landscape and the Production scenario in all but profitability. Our results indicate that innovative agricultural practices targeting environmental improvements may be acceptable to farmers and could substantially reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture in this region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)357-374
Number of pages18
JournalLandscape Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the US-EPA STAR grants program (Water and Watersheds, grant #R-825335-01) for funding, those involved with the MASTER program for sharing with us data essential to this project, and all participants in the initial project workshop that laid the groundwork for the scenario designs. We thank the reviewers who helped improve this paper. We extend special thanks to the Iowa farmers who participated in our interviews. This document has been subjected to the Environmental Protection Agency’s peer and administrative review and approved for publication.


  • Agriculture
  • Biodiversity
  • Scenarios
  • Socio-economics
  • Water quality


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