Scientists are predicting the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico will reach its largest size ever this summer. Fish and shrimp can’t survive in the Dead Zone. It’s believed to be mainly caused by fertilizer washed from farm fields across the nation. Rebecca Williams reports some scientists say demand for ethanol made from corn could make the Dead Zone even bigger:
Scientists are predicting the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico will reach its largest size ever this summer. Fish and shrimp can’t survive in the dead zone. It’s believed to be mainly caused by fertilizer washed from farm fields across the nation. Rebecca Williams reports some scientists say demand for ethanol made from corn could make the dead zone even bigger:
(Sound of tractor raking hay)
“It’s the perfect Iowa day, you know?”
Laura Krouse is tearing apart a bale of hay to mulch her tomatoes.
She’s a thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico. But she points out,
what happens on farms here ends up affecting life way down South:
“This watershed I live in drains 25% of Iowa. And we’re one of the
richest farming states in the nation – of course we have something to
do with it.”
By “it,” Krouse means the dead zone. All or parts of 31 farm states
drain into the Mississippi River, which empties into the Gulf.
Scientists point to nitrogen fertilizer used on farm fields as the main
cause of the dead zone. All that nitrogen causes an enormous algae
bloom. When the algae dies it drops to the ocean floor. Bacteria eat
the algae and they rob the water of oxygen.
This summer, the dead zone’s predicted to reach a record size. It could get as big as the state of New Jersey.
Laura Krouse has been trying to cut back her own role in the dead zone.
Five years ago, she added something to her farm that’s rare around here.
Krouse cut some of the tile lines that drain water from her farm, and
replaced part of her farmland with a prairie wetland. She says that
made her neighbors nervous:
“We just don’t see people taking land out of production in Iowa very
Wetlands like this one remove nitrogen from the water that flows from
It’s one of the things a government task force on the dead zone
recommended to cut nitrogen loading into the Gulf.
But instead of a big push to restore wetlands, the economic landscape
is changing in the other direction. Demand for ethanol has led to
historically high corn prices. And that’s encouraging farmers to grow
more corn. A USDA report says farmers have planted 14 million more
acres of corn this year than last year. It’s the most corn planted in
the U.S. in more than 50 years.
Laura Krouse says this is not good for the Gulf of Mexico:
“I’m concerned about all the extra corn because it requires nitrogen to
produce that corn and no matter how careful we are and no matter how
expensive it is which causes us to be more and more careful with
application, nitrogen as a molecule just wants to get away. It is
When it rains, nitrogen runs quickly from farm fields and gets into
creeks and rivers. The federal government’s task force on the dead zone has been trying to
tackle all this.
Don Scavia led a group of scientists advising the task force under the
Clinton Administration. The Bush Administration convened a new science
panel to review the original science panel’s work. Don Scavia says
since then, there’s been very little progress in shrinking the dead
zone, or what scientists call an area of hypoxia:
“In fact what we’ve seen in the last year is just the opposite with
this push towards corn-based ethanol production. Even acres that were
set aside into conservation are coming back out into production, into
corn, and the increased nitrogen load to the Gulf this year and the projected record
hypoxia is probably caused by this increased corn production.”
Scavia says if the dead zone keeps increasing, the Gulf shrimping
industry could collapse.
Ironically, the new science panel appointed by the Bush White House is
calling for even bigger cuts in nitrogen than the first panel appointed
by the Clinton Administration. They want to reduce nitrogen from farm
fields and other sources by 40 to 45 percent.
Don Parrish is with the American Farm Bureau. He says those reductions
are too much:
“Those are going to be really difficult and they could cause
significant economic dislocation at a time when I think we need to be
thinking about the products that agriculture produces, and those are
There’s no question corn for ethanol is at the top of that list right
now. Ethanol’s popular. It’s making farmers richer. It’s making the
chemical companies that supply nitrogen richer. The government task
force has to figure out how to cut back on all the nitrogen that’s
needed to grow all the corn… that’s needed for billions of gallons of
For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.