America's mandated madness means death for the Gulf of Mexico, according to a computer model developed by an international team of scientists.
The push for production and use of ethanol as an alternative fuel will worsen pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, increasing a “Dead Zone” that kills fish and aquatic life, the scientists say.
Their study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows how increased production of corn for ethanol in the United States will put more menacing nitrogen into the Mississippi River.
Lead author Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia and Chris Kucharik of the University of Wisconsin-Madison modeled the effects of biofuel production on nutrient pollution in an aquatic system.
The researchers looked at the estimated amounts of land and fertilizer needed to meet future production goals for corn-based ethanol.
"We found that meeting the ethanol production targets set for the year 2022 in the Energy Policy will increase nitrogen levels in the Mississippi by 10-34%," Donner told a reporter. "This will make the already difficult challenge of reducing the Dead Zone practically impossible."
The Gulf's Dead Zone, first measured about three decades ago, has grown to cover an area as large as 20,000 square kilometers (12,400 square miles) each summer in the Gulf, which is ringed by the southern United States, Mexico and Cuba.
The zone is caused indirectly by nitrogen fertilizers used on cornfields in states like Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Excess nitrogen runs into the Mississippi River, becomes nitrate, and feeds algae growth. When the algae eventually dies it sinks to the bottom and rots, a process that sucks oxygen out of the water and kills all other life forms.
Donner and Kucharik say their findings suggest that nitrogen loading from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico would increase by 10 to 19 percent, expanding the Dead Zone, which each summer already covers more than 7,722 square miles--an area equivalent to the size of New Jersey.
Nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fertilizers have been found to promote excessive growth of algae in water bodies, a problem that is common across North America and in many areas of the world. In some cases, the decomposition of algae consumes much of the oxygen in the water. Inadequate dissolved oxygen in bottom waters forces bottom-dwelling animals to either flee or die.
Fertilizer applied to cornfields in the central United States--Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin--is the primary source of nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River system, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico.
Donner and Kucharik arrived at their figures by combining the agricultural land use scenarios required to meet future demand for corn-based ethanol with models of terrestrial and aquatic nitrogen cycling.
Their results call into question the assumption that enough land exists to fulfill the current demand for food and feed crops, while at the same time allowing an expansion of corn production for fuel.
All About Corn
Instead, the scientists conclude that boosting ethanol production from US croplands without endangering water quality and aquatic ecosystems will require a substantial reduction in the amount of corn that is grown for animal feed and meat production.
The new US Renewable Fuels Standard, signed into law in December 2007 as part of the revised energy bill, calls for the production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels, mainly ethanol and biodiesel, annually by 2022.
The US ethanol industry produced a record amount of fuel ethanol in 2007 --6.48 billion gallons--32 percent more ethanol than in 2006, according to year-end data released by the US Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration.
Capacity for ethanol production is expected to grow another four billion gallons in 2008, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.
Right to Food
In related news, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food says the production of biofuels violates basic human rights.
Switzerland's Jean Ziegler said more than 850 million people across the world were suffering from hunger and malnutrition--12 million more than a year ago.
In a speech to the UN Human Rights Council in the Swiss city of Geneva on Tuesday, Ziegler also reiterated a call for a five-year ban on producing biofuels.
He said a massive hike in food prices was leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries.