U.S. Water News Online
TOLEDO, Ohio -- It seems like a simple equation.
Because of the rising demand for ethanol, farmers are growing more
corn, which needs more nitrogen fertilizer than other crops.
Then it stands to reason that applying more chemicals means more
of it will wind up polluting rivers and lakes.
Farmers say that's not necessarily so.
They say new technology allows them to apply fertilizer with more
precision, reducing the amount that drains into waterways. And they
point out that more farmers are planting grass strips along streams
and rivers to reduce runoff.
"It isn't as simple as saying more fertilizer will lead to more
runoff," said Matt Roberts, an agricultural economist at Ohio State
University. "It's a lot more complicated."
How much rain fields get and when it rains both play a role in how
much fertilizer is washed away too, he said. But he adds that "it's
not unreasonable to think that a large increase in corn will lead to
increase in runoff."
Until researchers can study the issue, it's difficult to say what
A study predicting the impact on the Chesapeake Bay concluded that
an increase in corn production over the next five years could add as
much as 16 million pounds of pollution.
About 300 million pounds of nitrogen flow in the bay each year,
according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"It simply means the ethanol boom is pointing us in the wrong
direction in which we want to go in cleaning up the bay," said James
Pease, an agriculture professor at Virginia Tech University.
Pease, who helped write the study, said farmers are expected to
plant at least 500,000 more acres of corn in the bay's watershed,
which stretches from New York to Virginia.
"We're obviously going to get more runoff," he said.
Much of that, though, can be negated if farmers embrace
conservation management practices such as planting buffer strips and
applying fertilizer more precisely, Pease said.
Congress should provide farmers incentives to adopt those
practices, he said.
"We have the right to demand a certain level of performance from
farmers," he said. "That's a hump that farmers are going to need to
There are the same concerns that a large rise in corn production
in the Midwest could dump more pollutants in the Mississippi River
and the Great Lakes.
Farmers this year planted about 93 million acres of corn, a 19
percent increase over last year, according to the U.S. Department of
Agriculture. They're replacing soybean and cotton fields with corn.
Many agriculture experts expect another big increase in corn next
year to keep up with demand from new ethanol plants under
That means farmers will have more incentive to make sure
nitrogen-based fertilizer they inject into the fields won't wash
away, said Dwayne Siekman executive director of the Ohio Corn Growers
The fertilizer made with natural gas is one of the biggest
expenses of growing corn and the cost of it has soared in the recent
"Farmers over the last decade have become more sustainable,"
Siekman said, adding that they have been blamed too often for
Other known polluters are landscaping chemicals and sewage runoff.
"We seem to discount the amounts of fertilizers and pesticides
applied to lawns and gardens," he said.
Return to the
U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.