USDA Report: Corn Plantings May be Highest Since World War II
EWG has been a consistent supporter of sustainable biofuels production, including ethanol.
But this morning's stunning USDA announcement that American farmers intend to plant over 90 million acres of corn this spring—more acreage than has been planted to the crop since World War II—should be a wake up call to policy makers.
Dramatic expansion of corn production for the ethanol industry has profound environmental implications that are being almost entirely ignored in Washington. It's one thing to have an ethanol boom in the Corn Belt. An ethanol blow-out is another thing altogether.
- Corn receives heavier applications of nitrogen fertilizer than any other major crop. Adding ten million additional acres of corn will result in a substantial increase in water pollution from nitrogen fertilizer run-off throughout the Corn Belt, the main contributor to the the "dead zone" that encompasses 5,000 to 8,000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico every spring. Cities like Des Moines are also already spending large sums to remove excessive nitrate from their tap water.
- Energy independence is about more than trading foreign oil for domestic ethanol. America is already a net importer of nitrogen fertilizer. Heavier use of nitrogen fertilizer on corn will mean heavier reliance on foreign suppliers.
- More corn also means more pesticides, weed killers in particular, probably in excess of 15 million more pounds applied this spring. That will include millions more pounds of Atrazine, a chemical that contaminates drinking water sources for nearly every major city in the Midwest. Again, water utilities will bear the cost of cleaning up this water.
- The expansion of corn acreage will also increase demands on groundwater used for irrigation, particularly if we have below-average moisture later in the growing season.
- We are also concerned that farmers in some areas will be expanding corn production at the expense of wildlife habitat. On Monday, EWG will write Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns to urge him not to allow 'early out' to holders of long-term Conservation Reserve Program contracts without repayment of rental and cost-sharing funds that have been provided in good faith by taxpayers in expectation of long term benefits to wildlife and the environment.
- Cellulosic ethanol theoretically is promising in some respects from an environmental standpoint. But it remains the biofuel equivalent of 'vapor ware' in the computer industry. We have seen plenty of expensive research proposals, but no firm, practical plan that will bring about a sustainable transition from corn-starch to cellulosic ethanol.
Up until now, ethanol policy has been little more than a political bidding war. Policy makers are outdoing one another to propose the biggest, fastest expansion of subsidies, and the most aggressive federal mandate to produce more ethanol and put more of it in our gas guzzling automobile fleet.
It's past time for policy makers to pay serious attention to the profound environmental side effects of the ethanol boom.
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EWG is a not-for-profit research organization that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. EWG's work on agriculture can be viewed at http://www.ewg.org/issues/siteindex/issues.php?issueid=102