Rewarding Polluters Fuels Gulf Of Mexico Dead Zone

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A new study determines that U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. This is an area of coastal waters — visited in MoJo’s The Fate Of The Ocean — where dissolved-oxygen concentrations fall to less than 2 parts per million every summer. According to a paper published at Environmental Science & Technology Online, these findings bode poorly for the Gulf, as more and more acres of land are planted with corn to meet the growing U.S. demand for alternative fuels.

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. What’s more, they have fewer acres enrolled in conservation programs compared with other parts of the Mississippi River basin. 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.

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