Simon Donner writes about his new paper Corn-based ethanol production compromises goal of reducing nitrogen export by the Mississippi River (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0708300105) on his weblog maribo:
A new paper by my colleague Chris Kucharik and I looks at the new US Energy Policy, will calls for growing more corn to produce ethanol, will affect the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. For a quick summary, see Reuters, the CBC or AFP.
The Mississippi dumps a massive amount of nitrogen, largely in the form of the soluble ion nitrate, into the Gulf each spring. It promotes the growth of a lot of algae, which eventually sinks to the bottom and decomposes. This consumes much of the oxygen in the bottom waters, making life tough for bottom-dwelling fish and creatures like shrimp. The Dead Zone has reached over 20,000 km2 in recent years.
The primary source of all that nitrogen is fertilizer applied to corn grown in the Midwest and Central US. Reducing the Dead Zone to less than 5000 km2 in size, as is suggested in US policy, will require up to a 55% decrease in nitrogen levels in the Mississippi.
The new US Energy Policy calls for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by the year 2022. Of that, 15 billion can be produced from corn starch. Our study found meeting those would cause a 10-34% increase in nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico.
Meeting the hypoxia reduction goal was already a difficult challenge. If the US pursues this biofuels strategy, it will be impossible to shrink the Dead Zone without radically changing the US food production system. The one option would be to dramatically reduce the non-ethanol uses of corn. Since the majority of corn grain is used as animal feed, a trade-off between using corn to fuel animals and using corn to fuel cars could emerge.