How Corn Grown for Ethanol is Killing Our Oceans

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Reasons Why Corn Ethanol is Bad for the Environment!
Biofuels can provide a significant source of renewable energy to reduce dependency on foreign oil and reduce climate change pollution. Since Congress voted to use corn as a biofuel, this decision has turned out to be a big mistake because of increased oil prices and flooding in the mid-west.

Not everyone has heard about certain environmental problems from growing ethanol corn which has had a major environmental impact on farm lands in the mid-west and the Gulf of Mexico.

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From a Special Report by the EWG, Environmental Working Group:

Reliance on corn grain as a feedstock – which accounts for 98% of current ethanol production – is having adverse effects on food and feed prices, and is already posing local and regional environmental problems, including:

Increased soil erosion – The current method of corn production generates significant amounts of excess soil erosion. Soil loss robs land of productivity (requiring more fertilizer inputs) and, when soil runs off farm fields, it has serious impacts on aquatic life and shortens the useful life of hydroelectric dams and drinking water reservoirs. According to the latest USDA National Resources Inventory (2003), the average rate of erosion for cropland was 4.9 tons per acre. With 2006 national average corn yields at 149 bushels per acre and average ethanol production at 2.7 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn. It is estimated that soil losses from corn-ethanol production will be about 24 pounds (lbs) of soil per gallon of ethanol produced.

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Increased nutrient pollution – Corn is the top fertilizer-utilizing crop in the country. In 2006 U.S. farmers used more than 21 million tons of nitrogen, phosphorus and other fertilizers to boost their crops, and all those chemicals have consequences far beyond the immediate area. The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reports 15 million additional acres of corn were planted in 2007 up from the 78 million acres planted in 2006. This will result in a substantial increase in water pollution from nitrogen fertilizer exacerbating algae outbreaks and fish kills in waters nationwide. In particular, because most of the corn in the country is grown in the Midwestern “Corn Belt,” a larger ***EPA Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) for corn ethanol, will increase the largest “Dead Zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi River Basin in the Gulf of Mexico.

***( The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established a national renewable fuel program (the Renewable Fuel Standard Program, or RFS program). The program is designed to encourage the blending of renewable fuels into our nation’s motor vehicle fuel. This rule establishes the annual renewable fuel standards, responsibilities of refiners and other fuel producers, a trading system and other compliance mechanisms, and record keeping and reporting requirements. In addition to the rule, EPA has published a Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA), which contains analysis of the economic and environmental impacts of the expanded use of renewable fuels under this program.)

When the spring rains come, fertilizer from Midwestern farms drains into the Mississippi river system and down to Louisiana, where the agricultural sewage pours into the Gulf of Mexico. Just as fertilizer speeds the growth of plants on land, the chemicals enhance the rapid development of algae in the water. When the algae die and decompose, the process deletes all the oxygen out of the surrounding waters, leading to a hypoxic event which creates a “Dead Zone”, Largest Ever in Gulf of Mexico. The water becomes as barren as the surface of the moon. What sea life that can flee the zone does so; what can’t, dies. Cities like Des Moines, Iowa are already spending large sums to remove excessive nitrate from their tap water. Also, the algae bloom is only going to get larger and spread from the recent mid-west flooding and flow of fertilizers and other chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico.

NEW ORLEANS – Researchers predict a “dead zone” of oxygen-depleted waters off the Louisiana and Texas coasts could grow this summer to 10,084 square miles — making it the largest such expanse on record.gulf_bloom.jpgRecent EPA Action Plan for Dead Zone will do little to Slow Dead Zone Growth:

What is even more serious for the “dead zone” problem and issues: WASHINGTON, June 16 – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released today an action plan that will do little to slow the growth of the oxygen-starved ocean ‘Dead Zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico, says three members of the Mississippi River Water Quality Collaborative. Recent studies place the size of this year’s Dead Zone at a record setting – 22,000 square kilometers (10,000 square miles) – an area roughly equivalent to the size of Massachusetts.

Increased herbicide and insecticide pollution – More corn has also resulted in the use of more toxic chemicals in general, and weed killers, in particular. Again, water utilities will bear the cost of cleaning up this water. NASS estimated the 2005 corn crop consumed 157 million lbs of herbicides and 4.8 million lbs of insecticides. Though we do not have chemical loss factors, if corn from existing corn land is used as feedstock for the 2007 ethanol capacity, then 26 million lbs of herbicides and 821,000 lbs of insecticides use could be attributed to ethanol. This represents roughly 15% of the estimated 171 million pounds of herbicides and 5.3 million lbs of insecticides applied to the 2007 corn crop. That will include millions more pounds of Atrazine, a hormone-disrupting potential carcinogen, which water utilities across the Midwest now routinely pay to remove from drinking water.

Increased aquifer depletion – According to the 2003 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, corn continues to be the dominant irrigated crop, accounting for nearly 19 percent of irrigated land. The survey found that in 2003, 9.75 million acres of corn were irrigated, representing nearly 12% of the acres planted that year. Irrigated corn acres require about 1.2 acre-feet of water, or more than 391,000 gallons per acre. Thus, irrigated corn acres in 2003 required a total of 3.8 trillion gallons of water. If 12% of the corn acres needed to supply the 2007 ethanol facilities were irrigated, over 650 billion gallons of water would be required to grow this feedstock. Increasing the RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard) mandate would dramatically increase irrigation demand for cornstarch-ethanol production, which would increase rates of aquifer depletion and strain other sources of water.

Loss and degradation of wildlife habitat – We are also concerned that farmers in some areas will be expanding corn acreage at the expense of wildlife habitat. Corn requires large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, which, when coupled with its weak root system, make it highly susceptible to erosion. The subsequent results are environmentally damaging on several fronts. Sedimentation blocks sunlight needed by plants, clogs fish gills, and buries spawning grounds and food supplies for aquatic creatures. Pollutants, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, used in fertilizer can cause eutrophication, or reduced oxygen levels which kill or weaken many fish and crustacean species. Furthermore, land in crop production is much less likely to provide adequate nesting grounds for a variety of birds. A recent study by Farrand and Ryan found nesting on CRP lands to be ten times higher than on land in crop production.

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Why BioFuels?

With peak oil approaching faster, alternative energy sources need to be developed. Biofuels are the cheapest and the most sustainable alternative and they can be produced and consumed locally by many people in small quantities. Alongside, there are also benefits to economy and environment.

Congress keeps talking about reducing U.S. oil consumption by using renewable biofuels. Congress also mandated ethanol to be used as the U.S. biofuel of choice, and being mandated, ethanol’s production would have to be increased to meet the Energy Acts of 2005 and 2007. However, increased oil prices and massive flooding of the corn crop in 2008 was not figured into the equation. We all know what happened next!

Congress must open the debate to stop using corn to produce ethanol and consider other more environmental friendly alternatives to producing other biofuels. This is going to take time and will not happen overnight. Oil will be around for a long time. Will our “do nothing Congress” get their act together? Time will tell. Americans need to flood Congress with calls, letters and emails to re-open the ethanol debate. If we do not get involved, then who is to blame if we continue to pay the price for corn ethanol and continue down the wrong road to breaking the chains of U.S. oil addiction?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

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Most experts agree that corn ethanol plays a key role in higher corn and soybean prices and inflated U.S. and global food prices as well as supply issues.

The Washington ethanol mandate to convert food to fuel, a key provision of the 2005 and 2007 federal energy bills, put the full weight of U.S. policy behind the corn ethanol boom. Add to the equation the extreme weather already inflicted on the Corn Belt, and the likelihood of summer heat and a fall freeze, and an even sharper food and fuel price spiral seems inevitable.

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14 Responses to How Corn Grown for Ethanol is Killing Our Oceans

  1. John Marlar July 10, 2008 at 10:21 am #

    The “Dead Zone” has been around for many many years. You damage your credibility when you “jump” on the latest greatest band wagon. It might be better to make a positive suggestion and one not related to the elemination of people (which is the actual cause of problems), but leads toward a compromise with nature.

    I know, a cry in the wilderness…..

  2. Chief July 13, 2008 at 5:10 pm #

    I’m not sure if you’ve read the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, but I’m having trouble finding where it “put the full weight of U.S. policy behind the corn ethanol boom”. The only mention of ‘corn’ is about R&D to convert corn ethanol plants to allow for other feedstocks:

    “(Sec. 224) Amends the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to direct such Secretary to establish R&D programs for: (1) increased biorefinery energy efficiency; and (2) retrofit technologies to enable biorefineries that exclusively use corn grain or corn starch as a feedstock to produce ethanol to accept a range of biomass, including lignocellulosic feedstocks.”

    http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d110:HR00006:@@@L&summ2=m&

    I don’t think we need to open the ethanol debate, only educate consumers on the benefits of finding new ways to create it. Changing the rhetoric from ethanol=good to ethanol=bad helps no one.

  3. chemicallygreen.com July 19, 2008 at 3:47 pm #

    @John Marlar: Thanks for your comments. True, “The Dead Zone” has been around for a long time and it is getting larger every year due to current corn ethanol, soy and other grain farming.
    So, what do you suggest in taking care of business?

    A positive suggestion? Stop growing corn as a biofuel. Ethanol corn is only going to make the “The Dead Zone” get larger. How about the corn growers find a better pesticide than Atrazine to use. There are natural pesticides being made from food grade products that could be a solution. EcoSmart Technologies in Atlanta, Ga. makes such products and these products are being used extensively in agriculture markets. Their products are not suspect carcinogens and towns in the Midwest would not have to filter these products from their water.

    Well, since I jumped on the latest “bandwagon” and reported about the environmental damage being done by growing ethanol corn, your answers to these problems would be appreciated. You are questioning my credibility because of the facts in this post which are the truth?
    Please tell me and the blogging world that the environmental problems listed in this post about growing ethanol corn are not true. I hear the cry in the wilderness from: “The Dead Zone”, our lands, our wildlife and water supplies as they cry out “SAVE US AND STOP KILLING US”!

  4. ChemicallyGreen.com
    chemicallygreen.com July 30, 2008 at 10:19 am #

    @Chief: Thanks for your comments. The corn ethanol lobbyists used the energy acts of 2005 and 2007 to push their agenda. I believe you read the post and do not see it as I wrote the post. The Washington ethanol mandate to convert food (corn) to fuel, a key provision of the 2005 and 2007 federal energy bills, was used by the lobbyists to put their full weight behind these bills The corn ethanol boondoggle threatens to be a government mandated program that will amount to a huge hidden tax on consumers, with benefits flowing to the politically connected. Such a program would be all but impossible to stop—even if other alternatives for biofuels turn out to be vastly superior. And every dollar spent on corn ethanol is a dollar not spent on those other, more promising approaches.

    So what should the government do? First off: no harm. Instead of trying to mandate specific technologies and risk locking us into using the wrong one. Washington should create incentives to help the market choose the best approaches. One step would be to reward consumers for conservation: There are vast opportunities to make our homes, businesses and vehicles more efficient, and to make our economy stronger in the process. Another step would be to open the ethanol debate and let corn stand on its own if it is going to be the major biofuel of choice. Another step would be for Congress and the President to come up with an energy policy for the country. This will probably not happen because of the politics. Gee, you talk about the fine lines of the Energy acts, but never mention what has happened to the environment from growing ethanol corn.

  5. mus302 January 13, 2009 at 12:15 am #

    “True, “The Dead Zone” has been around for a long time and it is getting larger every year due to current corn ethanol, soy and other grain farming.”

    For at least the last two years scientists have predicted that the coming years dead zone would be the largest on record but it has not happened. There are always lots of articles written on the prediction that the dead zone will be the largest ever seen but few articles are written after it is determined that a new record hasn’t been reached. This of course leaves everyone with the impression that the dead zone just keeps getting bigger.

    The record was set it 2002 at 8500 square miles. Since ethanol production has increased from 2.13 billion gallons in 2002 to 9.0 billion gallons in 2008 without another record seems to me to suggest that blaming ethanol may be a stretch.

  6. TheQ August 18, 2009 at 8:29 pm #

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  7. MT Hellfire August 18, 2009 at 8:39 pm #

    Knew I didn’t like the ethanol "solution" RT @thegoodhuman How Corn Grown for Ethanol is Killing Our Oceans http://is.gd/2neHB

  8. DianeN56 August 18, 2009 at 8:53 pm #

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  9. Ishtarmuz dale west July 8, 2011 at 1:18 am #

    @ishtarmuz http://bit.ly/cDeEVp How Corn Grown for Ethanol is Killing Our Oceans. Thought u might enjoy.

  10. Andee November 2, 2014 at 12:41 am #

    I am rather disgusted with the comments toward this article!

    Ethanol kills, it kills people, it kills our wildlife and harms our domestic creatures; a study in CA, not that long ago has proven 800 have died from the effects of Ethanol and the research shows as Ethanol continues to be used, our trees, our lawns, our earth and mortals will increasingly be headed towards increased death at about 4% per year for we humans.

    There is one very serious component, along with a series of less important components that are causing the deaths, neurological problems, erosion, etc.,

    Tropospheric Ozone is “bad” ozone, it kills and it makes one sick. I am one of those and it is not fun at all; “good ozone” aka Stratospheric is high above the earth; the problem being is this: the “bad” cannot be dissipated through the “good” ozone, hence it collects here day after day doing its rotten thing of causing death.

    One only has to take a drive along I 25 where the trees are watered by the city of Denver. You will see that part of the tree that is nearest the multitudes of cars that pass almost 24/7 are brown and dying; away from the highway, they are healthier.

    The other concern for our flora and fauna is the ChemTrails which are also killers and kill from the tops of our trees. If you watch you will see a tree that is healthy, the next year not so healthy as the leaves are starting to thin and a year or two later, it is nothing but a dead tree that has been defrocked by chemicals.

    Americans gripe and gripe, they get angry and fussed over what is happening across the ponds for human rights, that people are being killed by their leaders through poisoning; it is right here in the USA and has been for years. Now we have GMO to add to the chlorine, fluoride, Ethanol and the Trails – are our leaders any better than those across the ponds? I think naught!!!!! It is only a slower death!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. If Water Runs Out, Oil May Be Hard to Swallow - July 24, 2008

    […] irrigation be utilized before the Ogallala Aquifer becomes completely exhausted? I mentioned in a previous post about the effect growing corn has had on the midwestern states’ water […]

  2. Will Corn Ethanol Flunk EPA Emissions Requirements? - November 10, 2008

    […] The effect and risk of soil degradation, water pollution, pesticide and herbicide contamination, habitat loss and destroying the Gulf of Mexico (Dead Zone) was completely reported in a previous CG post: Corn Ethanol Killing Our Oceans? […]

  3. David@thegoodhuman - August 18, 2009

    How Corn Grown for Ethanol is Killing Our Oceans http://is.gd/2neHB

  4. RJS - August 18, 2009

    RT @thegoodhuman: How Corn Grown for Ethanol is Killing Our Oceans http://is.gd/2neHB #ocean #environment

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