Every year, nitrogen used to fertilize corn fields in the Midwest leaches into the Mississippi River and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Experts say the fertilizer feeds a giant algae bloom, which eventually dies and settles to the Gulf floor, consuming oxygen and suffocating marine life. The area is known as a “dead zone,” and some say the federal government’s ethanol policies are to blame. 

"There is a correlation between the increased acreage of corn being planted and fertilized in the Midwest and the size and persistence of areas of hypoxia off the Mississippi River, commonly known as the “dead zone," said Larry McKinney, Ph.D., executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico studies at Texas A& M University-Corpus Christi.

There is a false assumption that ethanol production is the reason that farmers in the Midwest are growing so much corn. It is much more complicated than that and all centers around economics. Corn production went high when crop prices soared, and corn was the best return on investment for farmers.

Those high prices weren’t exclusively because of ethanol production plants needing more corn. Even with the recent drop in corn prices to about half of the peak prices paid for corn, forecasts aren’t for corn acres to decline drastically. Therefore, no matter how much ethanol demand is built into the market, farmers are planting corn because of worldwide demand, not just ethanol demand.

So, don’t blame the dead zone on government policy encouraging alternative fuels. It’s sad to see a major agricultural university professor jumping into blaming ethanol by speaking at a Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) breakfast briefing in Washington, D.C., but McKinney did that today. 

As noted in a news release, the breakfast briefing focused on potential reforms in the renewable fuel standard and its impacts on fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and marine fisheries. CSF contends the ethanol polices now in place have had unintended and negative consequences on the our valuable coastal resource, the Gulf of Mexico, as they have contributed to creation of a growing and ever more persistent area of hypoxia off the coast of Louisiana.

In 2013, the “dead zone” covered an area of 5,840 square miles, CSF reports. That means something has to be done to reduce the problem, but blaming ethanol for nitrogen runoff isn’t the answer.