US rush to produce corn-based ethanol will worsen 'dead zone' in Gulf of Mexico

March 10, 2008

The U.S. government’s rush to produce corn-based ethanol as a fuel alternative will worsen pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, increasing a “Dead Zone” that kills fish and aquatic life, according to University of British Columbia researcher Simon Donner.

In the first study of its kind, Donner and Chris Kucharik of the University of Wisconsin quantify the effect of biofuel production on the problem of nutrient pollution in a waterway. Their findings will appear in the March 10 edition of the Proceedings of the National Journal of Sciences.

The researchers looked at the estimated land and fertilizer required to meet proposed corn-based ethanol production goals. Recently, the U.S. Senate announced its energy policy aims of generating 36 billion gallons annually of ethanol by the year 2022, of which 15 billion gallons can be produced from corn starch. The corn-ethanol goal represents more than three times than triple the production in 2006.

“This rush to expand corn production is a disaster for the Gulf of Mexico,” says Donner, an assistant professor in the Dept. of Geography. “The U.S. energy policy will make it virtually impossible to solve the problem of the Dead Zone.”

Nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fertilizer have been found to promote excess growth of algae in water bodies – a problem that’s common across North America and in many areas of the world.

In some cases, decomposition of algae consumes much of the oxygen in the water. Fertilizer applied to cornfields in the central U.S. – including states such as Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin – is the primary source of nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River system, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico.

Each summer, the export of nitrogen creates a large “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, a region of oxygen-deprived waters that are unable to support aquatic life. In recent years, it has reached over 20,000 km2 in size, which is equivalent to the area of New Jersey.

Donner and Kucharik’s findings suggest that if the U.S. were to meet its proposed ethanol production goals, nitrogen loading by the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico would increase by 10-19 per cent.

To arrive at this figure, Donner and Kucharik combined the agricultural land use scenarios with models of terrestrial and aquatic nitrogen cycling.

“The nitrogen levels in the Mississippi will be more than twice the recommendation for the Gulf,” says Donner. “It will overwhelm all the suggested mitigation options.”

The results of the study call into question the assumption that enough land exists to fulfill current feed crop demand and expand corn and other crop production for ethanol.

The study concludes that increasing ethanol production from U.S. croplands without endangering water quality and aquatic ecosystems will require a substantial reduction in meat consumption.

Source: University of British Columbia

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4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 10, 2008
I have been waiting for this info to appear and the ugly fact that corn based Ethanol is not very green when you have to add all the nitrogen to get large crops. It would be more beneficial to drill in ANWR, off Florida, the East Coast and the Santa Barbara Channel for Oil than give us the Legacy that this has with higher food costs and don't forget that to make Ethanol, a fermentation process, huge quantities of CO2 are given off. It just plain isn't GREEN unless you count the Government Subsidies that you folks aren't seeing at the pumps.
4 / 5 (3) Mar 10, 2008
Bio-fuel feedstocks accumulate energy at less than 1.35 kW m^-2. We shouldn't use food for fuel.
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 11, 2008
^^I have been wondering when this might become an issue too. Nitrogen run-off is very dangerous to the surrounding ecosystem and is a directly related to the dominant agricultural practices in the world. These practices entail using many time more nitrogen-based fertilizer than that for which the natural needs of the plant necessitate. This practice is the result of an attempt to increase harvest frequency and yield in order to substantiate the growth in population, instead of just using more land to farm. The nitrogen fertilizer not used by the plants is run-off in the water and makes its way to larger and larger bodies of water. The consequences of concentrated run-off are described above. However, this practice is also highly efficient at keeping costs low, which due to inflation (caused by the magical printing of money from nothing), keeps costs low for consumers as well. This is a primary causal element of the equation for dominant practice.

^So there is even a scientifically deduced argument against such practice. Again, why hasn't this information gone public sooner?

...Could there be some underlying theme? Stay tuned...
4 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2008
So what. For every problem there's 1000 academics to tell you it's insoluble.
4 / 5 (2) Mar 15, 2008
Ethanol is really corn alcohol.. correct? It would seem instaed of using 26lbs of corn to make one gallon, why other things couldn't be used. Watermelon,and fruits like that. not off the vine but the rejected fruits. Nobody is going to eat them. So why not use the scrap? that would be in the essence of staying green. You can always ferment and distill something.
not rated yet Apr 28, 2008
Too late forrest, the supermarkets already use the rejected fruits to brew their own-brand wines and spirits I reckon!

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