Corn and water

By Editorial
The News & Observer, January 2, 2008

It’s becoming clear that America’s quest for cleaner fuels and energy independence won’t be short or simple. The latest complication, surfacing from beneath the Gulf of Mexico, holds a message for North Carolina and its environmentally sensitive coastal waters. It also sounds a cautionary note about the huge increase in ethanol production mandated by the new energy bill signed into law by President Bush.
In the Gulf of Mexico a "dead zone," at times the size of New Jersey, has cropped up off Louisiana each spring and summer since at least 1985. In this zone, the water doesn’t hold enough dissolved oxygen to support marine life — including shrimp, oysters and crabs.
This killing ground for commercial seafoods is linked to algae growth fueled by nitrogen — nitrogen from fertilizer that runs into the Gulf from the vast farmlands of the Mississippi River basin. (Soil erosion, sewage and industrial pollution also play a part.)
Some scientists and environmentalists correlate the dead zone’s growth with increased corn production in the Midwest. The notion is plausible — corn-growing is especially nitrogen-fertilizer intensive. Nitrogen runs off the fields into streams, tributaries and finally the Mississippi. Algae bloom, killing seafood.
The problem isn’t new, but after shrinking in size following 2002 the dead zone again is expanding. In 2007 it was the third-largest on record.
Last spring’s huge corn planting — the most since 1944 — may be a factor. It was prompted by prices boosted by demand for corn-based ethanol. (Twenty percent of the corn crop goes into ethanol production.)
We’ve all heard how the push for more and more fuel derived from corn — driven by federal subsidies and intensified by an illogical tariff on Brazilian ethanol — has raised prices for everything from tortillas in Mexico to soft-drink sweeteners and livestock feed in this country. Now there’s a link to environmental degradation in the Gulf. 
Suffering seafood
All this could be but a preview. The nation’s new energy bill calls for a sixfold increase in ethanol output by 2022. Initially, that means corn-based fuel. Many more acres could be turned over to the crop. If the corn-nitrogen-dead zone connection is correct, that’s bad news for Gulf of Mexico seafood.
And perhaps North Carolina’s, too. Ground was broken last month for the state’s first ethanol plant, near Raeford. It’s intended to process Midwestern grain, shipped here by rail, into ethanol for the East Coast market. But surely the plant, along with similar operations if they’re built, offers an incentive for local farmers to increase their corn acreage (as do higher corn prices in general).
For our delicate, seafood-producing sounds, that could make matters worse. North Carolina’s coastal waters already have a nitrogen runoff problem aggravated by livestock farms and sewage plants. A Gulf of Mexico-style dead zone we don’t need.
The energy bill foresees an eventual switch from corn to switchgrass, wood chips and other "cellulosic" sources of ethanol, and it offers subsidies to prime the technology pump for this more sensible source of energy. In the long run, that version of an ethanol-fueled future is a better bet for North Carolina. It’s good that private companies here and the state are advancing the technology.
Meantime, farmers — and farm-state legislators — have to get a handle on nitrogen runoff. Planting fencerow to fencerow and pushing nitrogen fertilizers to the limit is far from good farm stewardship.