A way to bring life to the dead zone

By John Sales
Rutland Herald, Vermont, December 30, 2007


There is a large and expanding dead zone on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. For more information, see the excellent overview: "Corn boom threatens to expand ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico," published in The Times Argus on Dec. 18. The dead zone moves around, but it is related to the Mississippi River mouth.

The culprit is petroleum-produced nitrogen fertilizer used in the cultivation of corn. This crop is nitrogen-intensive. Both nitrogen and topsoil flood down the Mississippi and create an algal bloom in the Gulf of Mexico. Rotting dead algae sink and use up the water’s oxygen, suffocating bottom dwellers like crabs. There is worry the dead zone will expand to the entire Gulf of Mexico fishing industry.

The amount of land planted in corn is increasing sharply with incentives for ethanol. Corn prices are high and climbing, and farmers are taking advantage of it. There is a simple solution: Congress should pass a law that all corn will be grown as contoured strip crops, interspersed with an equal strip of alfalfa, let’s say 100 to 200 foot wide strips, as long as the farmer wants, as long as they follow contours. These strips should be alternated with every planting, so that a corn strip derives fresh nitrogen from the alfalfa of the previous planting.

By this law, both the use of synthetic nitrogen and erosion can be cut by nearly a factor of 10. Monitoring would be simple: These fields show clearly on Google Earth and have GIS coordinates. It would be easy to connect the coordinates with the farmer at fault and charge him a fee for his folly. That fee should be directly rebated to the farmer next door with a contoured alfalfa-corn field. Farmers will resist, just as car manufacturers resist mileage improvements. But with the right fee, there would be nearly instant compliance, and we will have also saved the petroleum used to make synthetic nitrogen fertilizer for our gas tanks. Please write to your congressman.

John Sales