In an ironic twist in the drive to become as independent of foreign oil as possible, marine life by the millions in the Gulf of Mexico could be paying the ultimate price. It has been known for years that runoff from the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in the Midwestern farm belt of the U.S. creates a “dead zone” where the polluted Mississippi river empties into the Gulf. With the dramatic increase in demand for corn to fuel ethanol production, fertilizer use is increasing and the dead zone is growing.
Here is an article with details on how corn production is killing the Gulf of Mexico. The story really made me think about how even positive developments, (like the increased use of ethanol), can have unintended consequences. Commercial corn farmers don’t want to use environmentally safe methods of production because they are paid by the bushel for their corn. By using synthesized chemical fertilizers they can force the growth of more corn per acre, thus increasing profits. Although there are methods to reduce runoff by creating buffer zones around water ways, there is no real incentive for farmers to do it. The demand for corn is so high right now that any buffer zone removes profitable land from corn production.
Reports like this can be a bit disheartening, but there are also some strange aspects to the situation. We are growing more corn to fuel ethanol production because of oil cost and availability. In doing this we use more fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, most of which are themselves petroleum based products. Another thing to think about is that even with the increased demand by consumers for healthy, organically grown, meat and vegetables; much farming in the U.S. produces crops and products that cannot be considered food. Ethanol and cotton are two of the biggest examples, but there are also numerous others.
One possible solution would be to redirect farm subsidies away from corn farmers not growing responsibly to corn farmers who create buffer zones of trees and other vegetation along rivers, lakes, and streams. Although I have not been a huge fan of farm subsidies in general, this might be better than current subsidies with purposes like keeping the price of conventionally produced corn, milk, and beef artificially low.
What do you think?