By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
A surge in the demand for ethanol -- touted as a greener alternative to gasoline -- could have a serious environmental downside for the Chesapeake Bay, because more farmers growing corn could mean more pollution washing off farm fields, a new study warned yesterday.
The study, whose sponsors included the U.S. government and an environmental group, predicted that farmers in the bay watershed will plant 500,000 or more new acres of corn in the next five years. Because fields of corn generally produce more polluted runoff than those of other crops, that's a problem.
"It's going in the opposite direction from where we want to go," said Jim Pease, a professor at Virginia Tech and one of the study's authors.
Ethanol, a fuel made from processed and fermented plant matter, is an old invention with enormous new cachet. Proponents say that it offers an alternative to oil imported from overseas and that it emits fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush called for its use in motor fuels to be increased sevenfold by 2017. Already, 15 ethanol facilities are either planned or under construction in the mid-Atlantic, according to yesterday's report.
But ethanol's boom has also produced a variety of unintended, and unwanted, consequences. Because the primary ingredient at U.S. ethanol plants is corn, the price of that grain has shot up, making everything from tortillas to beef to chocolate more expensive.
In the Chesapeake area, according to the study, the drawback to ethanol's boom is that more farmers have planted cornfields to take advantage of the prices. Corn harvests are expected to increase 12 percent in Maryland this year and 8 percent in Virginia, according to a forecast in March from the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Although the spike is expected to be greater in Mississippi, where forecasters predict a 179 percent jump, across the vast Chesapeake watershed -- extending from southern Virginia to Cooperstown, N.Y. -- smaller shifts can add up. The authors of the study released yesterday forecast that over the next five years, the area of land newly planted with corn could be as much as 1 million acres, four times the size of Fairfax County.
Those shifting to corn production included Craig Giese, a farmer with 600 acres on Virginia's Northern Neck. Giese said in a telephone interview yesterday that he planted 50 new acres of corn after prices climbed from about $2.30 per 56-pound bushel last year to about $3.40 this year.
But Giese said he left many of his acres planted with soybeans to ensure against a disaster if corn prices drop or a drought makes the plants wither.
"If you put in all corn, you could hit a home run, with the prices we have now," said Giese, whose farm is near Lancaster, about 120 miles from Washington. "But . . . you could also go belly up."
More cornfields could be trouble, the study warned, because corn generally requires more fertilizer than such crops as soybeans or hay. When it rains, some of this fertilizer washes downstream, and it brings such pollutants as nitrogen and phosphorus, which feed unnatural algae blooms in the bay. These algae consume the oxygen that fish, crabs and other creatures need to breathe, creating the Chesapeake's infamous dead zones.
Governments around the bay have pledged to cut their output of nitrogen by 110 million pounds by 2010. But the study estimated that an ethanol-driven increase in cornfields could add 8 million to 16 million pounds of pollution.
"We've made it that much harder to meet our bay restoration goals," said Beth McGee, a senior water quality specialist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group based in Annapolis. McGee helped compile the study released yesterday.
The impact could be lessened, McGee said, by measures that trap farm pollution before it can reach a stream. These include forested "buffers" along rivers, where plants can filter runoff, or "cover crops" that soak up fertilizer after the main harvest.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has pushed for such measures to get federal funding from the 2007 farm bill, which is scheduled for a markup in a House committee this week. McGee said yesterday's report was timed to show the need for those funds.