September 28, 2009
Corn Ethanol Increases Soil Run-Off

Hey, it has been far too long since I bashed corn ethanol as a product of bad US federal energy policy. Higher demand for corn to produce ethanol causes more run-off of soil, pesticides, and fertilizer due to less crop rotation.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - More of the fertilizers and pesticides used to grow corn would find their way into nearby water sources if ethanol demands lead to planting more acres in corn, according to a Purdue University study.

The study of Indiana water sources found that those near fields that practice continuous-corn rotations had higher levels of nitrogen, fungicides and phosphorous than corn-soybean rotations. Results of the study by Indrajeet Chaubey, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and Bernard Engel, a professor and head of agricultural and biological engineering, were published in the early online version of The Journal of Environmental Engineering.

"When you move from corn-soybean rotations to continuous corn, the sediment losses will be much greater," Chaubey said. "Increased sediment losses allow more fungicide and phosphorous to get into the water because they move with sediment."

Corn ethanol is a bad idea with incentives more aimed at subsidizing farmers than at doing anything useful for our energy problems. The energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) isn't high enough to be worth the costs and it can't scale due to limited availability of good soil. Plus,

Biofuel crops are seen as boosting the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by oxygen depletion as a result of fertilizer run-off.

Scientists in Pennsylvania report that boosting production of crops used to make biofuels could make a difficult task to shrink a vast, oxygen-depleted "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico more difficult. The zone, which reached the size of Massachusetts in 2008, forms in summer and threatens marine life and jobs in the region. Their study is scheduled for the Oct. 1 issue of ACS' semi-monthly journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Christine Costello and W. Michael Griffin and colleagues explain that the zone forms when fertilizers wash off farm fields throughout the Mississippi River basin and into the Gulf of Mexico. The fertilizers cause the growth of algae, which eventually depletes oxygen in the water and kills marine life. Government officials hope to reduce fertilizer runoff and shrink the zone to the size of Delaware by 2015. But that goal could be more difficult to reach due to federally-mandated efforts to increase annual biofuel production to 36 billion gallons by 2022, the study says.

Maybe genetically engineered microbes for biofuels production will prove useful. But using food crops to produce energy is a bad idea. Even without the demand for crops to make biofuels rain forests are getting shifted into agriculture due to population growth and Asian economic growth. We shouldn't make this problem worse with bad energy policy.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 September 28 11:48 PM  Energy Biomass

wcw said at September 29, 2009 8:23 AM:

Everyone hates corn ethanol. Well, everyone but idiots and farm-belt recipients of corn subsidies.

Still, it's worth repeating. The sooner we get rid of idiot subsidies, the better.

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