December 17, 2007
Gulf "Dead Zone" grows with corn prices

The best thing about this problem is that there's a pretty clear solution, so dealing with it is hopefully just a matter of implementation:

Because of rising demand for ethanol, American farmers are growing more corn than at any time since the Depression. 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 2002.

I learned more about the Dead Zone (with fun graphics!) here, and like I said, the best thing about it is how easy it would be to stop this process. Unfortunately, we're hearing things like this:

"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 corn."

I'd love to see lawmakers take the initiative and work to regulate when and how fertilizers are used and to create buffer zones to keep the dangerous runoff out of the Gulf, like the article suggests. It would be ridiculous to let this problem get out of hand. I think I might have a letter or two to write to my representatives.

Posted by Alexandria Ragsdale on December 17, 2007 to Technology, science, and math

This subject among others is covered in detail in a fascinating book called "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. Makes a nice Christmas gift for anyone that is interested in the food chain and food safety/nutirtion.

Posted by: Patrick on December 18, 2007 8:50 AM

One way to address this would be to engage in a massive wetlands restoration program throughout the Mississippi basin. Restored and expanded wetlands could fix much of the nitrogen that is flowing down into the Gulf.

Posted by: Jeb on December 19, 2007 10:04 AM