Fire, Ready, Aim Approach FlawedBy Aaron Putze
Water quality concerns in the Gulf of Mexico could soon be used to attack mid continent corn farmers. The claim: that excess nutrients from the Corn Belt are encouraging phytoplankton growth and depleting oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico, creating a 7,000-square-mile "dead zone."
This statement is being made by those involved in the hypoxia management plan, a branch of the Gulf of Mexico Program (GMP). The original intent of GMP when formed three years ago was to concentrate on pollution concerns originating along the gulf's coast. That focus has changed. Attention has recently shifted upstream for the source of nutrients believed to be causing the "dead zone." And an accusing finger is being pointed directly at corn farmers for their use of nitrogen fertilizer. Environmental advocates call the usage "excessive" and are lobbying for a long-term, enforceable strategy to eliminate the hypoxic area.
How all of this will affect corn producers in states that contribute water to the Mississippi River – and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico – is anyone's guess.
Although there have been many statements surrounding the gulf's hypoxic area, few can be scientifically supported.
First, the "dead zone," – as it is referred to for the sake of generating media attention – is false and misleading. The area in question is one of the world's most productive ecosystems. Fish catches total nearly 12 times that of anywhere else in the gulf, even where oxygen levels are at their lowest.
Second, the size of the hypoxic zone is not increasing as reports suggest. Although it did grow dramatically following the 1993 flood, it has been contracting ever since.
Finally, those involved with the hypoxia plan say that farmers are responsible for nearly 99 percent of the nitrogen loading found in the gulf. This is absurd and fails to account for the population increase that's taken place in the watershed area since 1940.
This is simply another case of environmental advocates using the "fire, ready, aim" approach to problem solving. Rather than point fingers and jump to conclusions, studies should be conducted by unbiased hydologists to measure agriculture's contribution to the hypoxic area.
Only through open and honest dialogue – not speculation – can a workable solution be found that is good for both corn farmers and the Gulf of Mexico. Those involved in the hypoxic plan should use this approach.
Aaron Putze is the director of news services for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.