Don't forget good farm stewardship in ethanol push

RALEIGH, N.C. - Another disadvantage of corn-based ethanol production plays out in the Gulf of Mexico. It's becoming clear that America's quest for cleaner fuels and energy independence won't be short or simple. The latest complication, surfacing...

RALEIGH, N.C. - Another disadvantage of corn-based ethanol production plays out in the Gulf of Mexico.

It's becoming clear that America's quest for cleaner fuels and energy independence won't be short or simple. The latest complication, surfacing from beneath the Gulf of Mexico, holds a message for North Carolina and its environmentally sensitive coastal waters. It also sounds a cautionary note about the huge increase in ethanol production mandated by the new energy bill signed into law by President Bush. In the Gulf of Mexico a "dead zone," at times the size of New Jersey, has cropped up off Louisiana each spring and summer since at least 1985. In this zone, the water doesn't hold enough dissolved oxygen to support marine life - including shrimp, oysters and crabs.

This killing ground for commercial seafood is linked to algae growth fueled by nitrogen - nitrogen from fertilizer that runs into the Gulf from the vast farmlands of the Mississippi River basin.

Some scientists and environmentalists correlate the dead zone's growth with increased corn production in the Midwest. The notion is plausible - corn-growing is especially nitrogen-fertilizer intensive. Nitrogen runs off the fields into streams, tributaries and finally the Mississippi. Algae bloom, killing seafood.

The problem isn't new, but after shrinking in size after 2002, the dead zone again is expanding. In 2007, it was the third-largest on record.


Last spring's huge corn planting - the most since 1944 - may be a factor. It was prompted by prices boosted by demand for corn-based ethanol. (Twenty percent of the corn crop goes into ethanol production.)

We've all heard how the push for more and more fuel derived from corn - driven by federal subsidies and intensified by an illogical tariff on Brazilian ethanol - has raised prices for everything from tortillas in Mexico to soft-drink sweeteners and livestock feed in this country. Now there's a link to environmental degradation in the Gulf.

All this could be but a preview. The nation's new energy bill calls for a sixfold increase in ethanol output by 2022. Initially, that means corn-based fuel. Many more acres could be turned over to the crop. If the corn-nitrogen-dead zone connection is correct, that's bad news for Gulf of Mexico seafood.

The energy bill foresees an eventual switch from corn to switchgrass, wood chips and other "cellulosic" sources of ethanol, and it offers subsidies to prime the technology pump for this more sensible source of energy. '

Meantime, farmers - and farm-state legislators - have to get a handle on nitrogen runoff. Planting fencerow to fencerow and pushing nitrogen fertilizers to the limit is far from good farm stewardship.

The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.

Officials can help solve dead-zone issue

LAFAYETTE, La. - A battle could be brewing between fishermen and farmers over dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. More than six years after a special task force pledged to reduce the zone to a quarter of its size by 2015, it still is growing. Last year's dead zone was the third largest on record.


There is heavy pressure on federal regulators to impose mandatory reductions in agriculture runoff. This has resulted in a government report listing nine states in the Mississippi River Basin that allegedly contribute most of the nutrients that threaten the viability of the nation's largest and most productive fisheries in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The U.S. Geological Survey report says Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky and Mississippi make up only one-third of the 31-state Mississippi River drainage area but contribute more than three-quarters of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the Gulf.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that there is more federal money available for crop production than for conservation efforts.

As a result, the report says, 1.7 billion tons of topsoil erode off agricultural fields nationwide, polluting America's waters and fisheries with sediment and millions of pounds of fertilizer and pesticides.

Benjamin Grumbles, the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for water, said farms are "overfeeding the Gulf" with nutrients, and federal and state regulators should develop plans to provide the Gulf with a "more balanced diet."

The other consideration - the real sticking point - is money. Iowa State University estimates it would cost $613 million a year to meet EPA proposals to cut farm-field phosphorus runoff by 40 percent and nitrates by 25 percent.

The problem will have to be solved at the federal level. Incentives for conservation must be strengthened and soil conservation rules must be enforced.

The Daily Advertiser of Lafayette, La.

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