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There’s a Corn Ethanol “Spill” Every Day

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Last week an OpEd in the New York Times called attention to the agricultural activities damaging  the Ogallala aquifer, both depleting the aquifer by using water faster than it is replaced, and polluting it with fertilizer and pesticides. 

Sprinkler irrigation in the High Plains (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Kay Ledbetter)

The Ogallala provides water to over a quarter of irrigated farmland in the United States, and sprawls 174,000 square miles across eight states from South Dakota to Texas. That water helps farmers grow a lot of corn, and 40 percent of that corn is used to fuel our cars.  It takes about 8 ounces of ethanol to move an average car one mile, but using irrigated corn from Nebraska to produce that small glass of ethanol can take 30 gallons of water.  Looks to me like that’s a car with a serious drinking problem.

Corn farming is a leading cause of water pollution

Pollution from corn farming is a leading cause of water quality problems across the country, but particularly in the corn-growing Midwest. High fertilizer application rates means nitrogen and phosphorous are running off into nearby waters. In the areas where it’s grown, particularly in the Upper Mississippi River watershed, it pollutes drinking water and produces toxic lake algae that attacks U.S. Senators during their vacations.

Downstream, the fertilizer-turned-pollutant feeds more algal blooms that contribute to the ever- expanding Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” (a large aquatic area deprived of oxygen). That spells big problems for the Gulf economy and some nationally important fisheries, which the National Marine Fisheries Service says produced 1.3 billion pounds of fish and shellfish valued at $661 million in 2008 (which was, admittedly before That Oil Spill, which didn’t help either).

Ethanol is a leading cause of corn farming

Farming in Iowa without stream buffers. Photo Courtesy of the Natural Resources Conservation Service

I’ve written a paper that goes into great detail on the water quality problems of corn ethanol, which you can read here. I talk about how current farming practices often leave fields bare for long stretches of the year, so there aren’t plants to “hold” the fertilizer on the land, and the widespread use of tile drainage, which increases crop yield but also dramatically speeds the flow of pollutants into surface waters.

Demand for corn to make ethanol – driven by government policies – encourages more corn production and thus contributes to this problem of fertilizer “spilling” into our waters. We can do better, and my paper touches on some ways to do so: cover crops, better crop rotation and returning perennial grasses to the agricultural landscape, which would also offer a viable biomass source for clean, cellulosic biofuels. As I argued here last summer, if we want to protect water quality while also reducing U.S. oil dependence, biofuel production must move beyond corn to more diverse and environmentally friendly crops and waste materials.

Posted in: Biofuel, Energy

About the author: Jeremy Martin is a scientist with expertise in the technology, lifecycle accounting, and water use of biofuels. He is working on policies to help commercialize the next generation of clean biofuels (made from waste and biomass rather than food) that can cut U.S. oil dependence and curb global warming. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry with a minor in chemical engineering. See Jeremy's full bio.

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  • Karin

    Corn should neither be used to feed cattle – their digestive systems were not designed to digest it, and it shortens milking and breeding stock lives and health. Cattle digestive systems are designed to eat grass and other weeds, and only then to they produce the Omega three and other balanced fats in their bodies that make for healthy meat. There are many places where grasslands only good use is grazing. Corn is not good because of many reasons. The native americans had MANY different varieties of corn, and uses for the different types. Genetic engineering, especially the roundup ready varieties are showing up to have many negatives effects on the quality of the feed. Ironically, the more we modify to produce more, the more a grain has less nutrients in it….. Just because we can do something, does not mean we should, and the unintended consequences in the long run are catastrophic. The amount of fossil fuels needed to produce to corn to make ethenol pretty much cancels out any benefit we get from it. Among other things. l

    Enough for this rant!

  • http://reallyquitetasty.com Carrie

    Concerned about what all this corn production is doing to the environment? STOP EATING MEAT. It takes 16 pounds of grain to raise one pound of beef to market, and that doesn’t count all the gallons of water and pesticides that are used in the process. If you can’t commit to eliminating meat from your diet, pledge to eat less. Meatless Mondays are a great start, but going every other day meatless/dairy-less will make an impact.

  • mark whitt

    legalize Hemp farming before its too late !

  • E. Gore

    Let’s get rid of corn ethanol!

    If we would only put our minds to the problem we will soon enough be running our cars on nothing more than hope and dreams!! An 8 oz glass of blind faith will power your Escalade to Mars and back twice, maybe three times.

    But first we have to get a few megatons of government grant money diverted into the pockets of our intrepid alternative energy R&D professionals (professionals at cashing the checks, not so much at inventing anything useful, I’m afraid). Promises, promises, gimme, gimme, gimme. We only need another fraudulent 16 billion gallon challenge to break the grant money flood gates wide open again! Just imagine…another 16 billion gallons of unbridled science fiction hallucinations at only about $4 per gallon, or so…damn, I’ve got goosebumps!!

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