Corn boom may expand 'dead zone'|
Farmers say crop too profitable to stop, despite problems downstream
The Associated Press
Updated: 5:45 p.m. ET Dec. 17, 2007
JEFFERSON, Iowa - Because of rising demand for ethanol, American
farmers are growing more corn than at any time since World War II.
And sea life in the Gulf of Mexico is paying the price.
The nation's corn crop is fertilized with
millions of pounds of nitrogen-based fertilizer. And when that nitrogen
runs off fields in Corn Belt states, it makes its way to the Mississippi
River and eventually pours into the Gulf, where it contributes to a
growing "dead zone" — a 7,900-square-mile patch so depleted of oxygen
that fish, crabs and shrimp suffocate.
The dead zone was discovered in 1985 and has
grown fairly steadily since then, forcing fishermen to venture farther
and farther out to sea to find their catch. For decades, fertilizer
has been considered the prime cause of the lifeless spot.
With demand for corn booming, some researchers
fear the dead zone will expand rapidly, with devastating consequences.
"We might be coming close to a tipping point," said Matt Rota,
director of the water resources program for the New Orleans-based
Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group. "The ecosystem
might change or collapse as opposed to being just impacted."
Environmentalists had hoped to cut nitrogen
runoff by encouraging farmers to apply less fertilizer and establish
buffers along waterways. But the demand for the corn-based fuel
additive ethanol has driven up the price for the crop, which is
selling for about $4 per bushel, up from a little more than $2 in
That enticed American farmers — mostly in
Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota — to plant
more than 93 million acres of corn in 2007, the most since 1944.
They substituted corn for other crops, or made use of land not
previously in cultivation.
Farmer: 'Try to be a good steward'
Corn is more "leaky" than crops such as soybean and
alfalfa — that is, it absorbs less nitrogen per acre. The prime
reasons are the drainage systems used in corn fields and the timing
of when the fertilizer is applied.
The Environmental Protection Agency
estimates that up to 210 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer enter
the Gulf of Mexico each year. Scientists had no immediate estimate
for 2007, but said they expect the amount of fertilizer going into
streams to increase with more acres of corn planted.
"Corn agriculture practices release a lot
of nitrogen," said Donald Scavia, a University of Michigan professor
who has studied corn fertilizer's effect on the dead zone. "More
corn equals more nitrogen pollution."
Farmers realize the connection between their
crop and problems downstream, but with the price of corn soaring, it
doesn't make sense to grow anything else. And growing corn isn't
profitable without nitrogen-based fertilizer.
"I think you have to try to be a good
steward of the land," said Jerry Peckumn, who farms corn and soybeans
on about 2,000 acres he owns or leases near the Iowa community of
Jefferson. "But on the other hand, you can't ignore the price of
Peckumn grows alfalfa and natural grass on
the 220 or so acres he owns, but said he cannot afford to experiment
on the land he rents.
The dead zone typically begins in the spring
and persists into the summer. Its size and location vary each year
because of currents, weather and other factors, but it is generally
near the mouth of the Mississippi.
This year, it is the third-biggest on record.
It was larger in 2002 and 2001, when it covered 8,500 and 8,006
square miles respectively.
Soil erosion, sewage and industrial pollution
also contribute to the dead zone, but fertilizer is believed to be
the chief factor.
Fertilizer causes explosive growth of algae,
which then dies and sinks to the bottom, where it sucks up oxygen as
it decays. This creates a deep layer of oxygen-depleted ocean where
creatures either escape or die.
Marine life struggle to survive
Bottom-dwelling species such as crabs and oysters are most
at risk, said Michelle Perez, an analyst with the Washington-based
Environmental Working Group. "They struggle to survive," Perez said.
"They can't swim away."
Crabbers complained at a meeting in Louisiana
earlier this year that they pulled up bucket upon bucket of dead
Rota warned that if the corn boom continues,
the Gulf of Mexico could see an "ecological regime change." The fear
is that the zone will grow so big that most sea life won't be able to
escape it, leading to an even bigger die-off.
"People's livelihood depends on the shrimp,
fish and crabs in these waters," he said. "Already, some of these
shrimpers are traveling longer and longer distances to catch anything."
Given the market pressure to grow corn, the
Natural Resources Defense Council and others argue that the nation
needs a comprehensive, federal approach to the problem.
Among the ideas floated: rules to force
farmers to use fertilizers with more care, and the establishment of
buffer zones to contain runoff.
Original article: MSNBC
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