June 27, 2007

Dead Zones

I can't imagine there's a huge demand for blogging about oceans, but here's another tidbit. Dead zones are created in the ocean whenever oxygen levels fall below the levels needed to sustain marine life--usually caused by fertilizers being dumped into the sea. And, as many people know, there's a massive dead zone the size of New Jersey down in the Gulf of Mexico. But now comes a new paper suggesting that U.S. farm policy may partially be to blame:
Scientists studying nutrient inputs that feed the Gulf's hypoxic zone have known that certain intensively farmed areas in the upper Midwest leak more nitrogen derived from fertilizers than others. Now, there’s a new twist. Farmers in areas with the highest rates of fertilizer runoff tend to receive the biggest payouts in federal crop subsidies, says Mary Booth, lead author of the paper and a former senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group.

Booth maintains that agricultural nitrate loading could be reduced substantially if farmers took just 3% of the most intensively farmed land out of production. Accomplishing this target, she adds, wouldn’t require a large increase in overall federal funding, but monies would have to be shifted from commodity to conservation programs under the Farm Bill set to expire in September.
The thing is, it's going to be very difficult to take "3% of the most intensively farmed land out of production" so long as new biofuel mandates are driving up the demand for corn. On the other hand, there are experts who say it's possible to reduce the Gulf of Mexico dead zone without sacrificing crop production--using management techniques to reduce fertilizer use. I really have no idea. The dead zones themselves are fairly creepy, though, especially the way they expand and contract seasonally, like living blobs.
-- Brad Plumer 5:10 PM || ||