New Orleans — The federal government is being roundly criticized for committing much of the nation's corn crop to ethanol production. An increasing number of Americans believe that this corn-based biofuel requires more energy to produce than it yields and that it burns much less efficiently than gasoline in most engines. Still others claim that ethanol production has resulted in higher food costs at the grocery store.
Meanwhile, some experts continue to insist that ethanol is still a good idea because it's a "green" fuel.
Renewable does not necessarily translate into environmentally friendly. And as we struggle to increase production of corn-based ethanol and biodiesel to counter soaring oil prices, our waters are suffering because of it.
Ramped up corn production in Iowa had already led to hundreds of violations of environmental regulations for air, water and land. In summer 2006, a Cargill biodiesel plant in Iowa Falls improperly disposed of 135,000 gallons of liquid oil and grease and, as a result, killed fish in a nearby stream.
Scientists now fear that increased corn production could spell disaster for the Gulf of Mexico, already suffering from a "dead zone" that has grown to 8,000 square miles.
"The ecosystem might change or collapse as opposed to being just impacted," said Matt Rota of the Gulf Restoration Network.
"We're now starting to find impacts on the shrimp catch," said Don Scavia, a professor of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan.
"We're at the point where it may be hard to recover because the ecosystem has changed so much."
Simon Donner from the University of British Columbia and Chris Kucharik from the University of Wisconsin used computer models to conclude that growing enough corn to meet biofuel goals set for 2022 could cause a 10 percent to 34 percent increase in nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, which feed the Gulf.
That's because more land is being put into corn production because of higher commodity prices, and as a consequence, more fertilizer will be used.
Nitrogen is what feeds algae blooms during the summer and fall in the Gulf of Mexico. When overcast conditions persist for several days, algae blooms can die and burn up all available oxygen when they decompose. Fish and other sea creatures must flee the area or die.
In addition to predicting an increase in nitrogen pollution, the scientists say that a 95 percent probability exists that the nation will fail to meet targets set by a task force to reduce the size of the dead zone.
The state and federal task force, meanwhile, acknowledges that its goal of significantly reducing the size of the dead zone by 2015 is not likely to be met because of increased fertilizer use for corn production.
"In fact, U.S. farmers planted more than 93 million acres of corn in 2007, the most since 1944," reported the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association (MICRA).
"EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] estimates that up to 210 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer enters the Gulf of Mexico per year. And scientists say they expect the tonnage to increase with corn acreage, especially because corn absorbs less nitrogen per acre than other crops such as soybeans and alfalfa."
Before the ethanol push, farmers took nearly 4 million acres of land out of production for wetlands and buffer zones between 2000 and 2006. But more than 15 million new acres were devoted to corn in 2007.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture pointed out that growing more corn doesn't necessarily translate into more pollution, however.
"It depends how those extra acres are managed," said Gary Mast, deputy undersecretary. "If they are managed correctly, we don't have to go backward."
But even before the rush to ethanol, many had criticized the lack of coordination among the states in dealing with the dead zone and the lack of leadership from the EPA.
The National Research Council called the Mississippi River system an "orphan" in need of guidance.
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