It’s hard to make the world move with so many hippies fighting progress in so many different ways. Right now in the Gulf of Mexico there is an area being used for corn production. There are countless quantities of hippies trying to prove that ramping up corn production to make ethanol will make the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico even more lethal.
Run-off from corn fields is all but sure to increase the zone of oxygen-deprivation water in the Gulf that is toxic to fish, says geographer Simon Donner of the University of B.C. and lead author of the report published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It is going make what was already a difficult problem pretty much impossible to solve,” says Donner, who has a long interest in agriculture’s impact on the environment.
The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which grows to cover close to 20,000 square kilometres in summer, is one of the more dramatic.
Nutrients and fertilizers wash off Midwest farmland, down the Mississippi River and into the gulf, where it fuels a depletion of oxygen. The result is one the largest and most infamous of the 200 dead zones now found in coastal zones around the globe.
Donner and his colleague Christopher Kuckarik at the University of Wisconsin predict that if the U.S. meets its proposed ethanol goal, the amount of nitrogen from fertilizer flowing into the gulf will increase by as much as 19 per cent in coming years.
A U.S. task force has concluded nitrogen flowing into the gulf must be cut 30 per cent to bring the Gulf of Mexico dead zone back to life. Other studies have called for a 55-per-cent reduction.
Donner says the downstream impacts on the gulf “don’t appear to have been on the agenda” of the U.S policy-makers who recently endorsed a plan to produce 36 billion gallons annually of ethanol by the year 2022, as much as 15 billion gallons of it from corn starch.
“The energy policy pretty clearly is going to contradict the Gulf of Mexico dead zone reduction effects,” says Donner, whose study assessed the amount of estimated land and fertilizer required to meet the ethanol goals. It concludes the dead zone will grow if there are not “radical shifts” in food and land management.
While the study focused on the gulf, Donner said in an interview he expects similar problems to crop up around the world as more and more land moves into biofuel production.
“There is only so much productive agricultural land on the planet and we’re already using most of it,” he said, stressing the importance of assessing the trade-offs and consequences in advance.
He says one way to reduce the problems is to use less land to grow corn for cattle, and reduce the global appetite for beef.
“If we didn’t eat beef we’d easily have enough land to feed the planet,” he says.
Several recent studies have raised questions about the environmental costs of biofuels, particularly ethanol made from corn, which requires a lot of energy and fertilizer to grow. “[Corn ethanol] doesn’t come out well on balance for the environment or the atmosphere,” says Donner, noting that some biofuels are better than others.
“Biofuels aren’t inherently a bad idea,” says Donner. “But they have to be done well, or the atmosphere and the waterways are going to be net loser.”