Rotten corn

Aspergillus infected corn. Iowa State University Extension.

The National Corn Growers Association is an important trade group. Their mission is to advocate and lobby on behalf of corn growers, or as they say “to create and increase opportunities for corn growers”. At the Maize Genetics Conference, I got to listen to their Chair of the Research and Business Development Action Team, Pam Johnson (you can find my summary of her remarks in my post Research and the Recession). She was a little overenthusiastic, but generally made sense, advocating for better cooperation between government and industry to produce more useful research. I hate to say it, but, was all that just for show?
Like any special interest group, NCGA puts out information that is biased toward their own agenda. This is nothing new, every special interest group from Greenpeace to AgBioWorld does it. I know it happens, and yet, I was still shocked yesterday when I read the report Research Shines Light on Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone (full paper). The cause of the hypoxic zone has been thoroughly researched by multiple respected organizations including NOAA and USGS, but NCGA throws all that research aside in this report.
Let’s not blame nitrogen fertilization of corn, they say. Instead, it’s increased population causing more sewage and the fertilization of lawns (really, they say that). Some of their points are valid, but taken as a whole, the report may as well be an April Fool’s Joke (unfortunately, it’s not April, and I’m not laughing).
If I was expecting bias, then why does this matter? It matters because there is theoretically supposed to be collaboration between academia, government, NGOs, consumer groups, industry, and trade groups. All of these stakeholders must cooperate in order to conduct risk analysis, to decide research agendas, to form policy. Ultimately, they must all work together and compromise, finding ways that each stakeholder may benefit the most. When any one of those stakeholders goes off on their own and twists science for their own agenda, everyone loses. The twister loses status, becomes less respected. Everyone else loses because a viewpoint is effectively removed from the conversation. (Yes, I know this is an idealized view, but this is the way things are supposed to be, darn it!)
Because of bad science, or rather, bad use of science, many organizations have no credibility in my book (at least when it comes to certain issues). Every piece of information should be corroborated with several reliable sources but it gets much more difficult when sources become less reliable!
One example is UCS. They do great work on a variety of topics, but when it comes to genetic engineering, they let their agenda twist science too much. In their recent report, Failure to Yield, they apparently didn’t bother to consult any experts on biotechnology or agriculture, or only talked to scientists who were too ideological to report reality.
Now, unfortunately, I have to add NCGA to the list of organizations from whom I must take reports with a whole bowl of salt, instead of just a pinch.
NCGA would have far better served their constituents and everyone else by admitting that N runoff is a big problem. Then, they could push for more research into NUE (nitrogen use efficient) crops, alternative fertilization schemes like injection instead of spreading, rotation schemes that aid in soil fertility, prevention of fertilizer runoff with buffer strips on waterways and cover crops… there is a lot to be done! Now that NCGA has said there is no problem, who will push for research into these alternatives?
Update: I was thinking about this a bit more last night and wanted to add a few more comments about the report.
The report seems to make two claims: first, there is no Gulf dead zone, and second, if there is a dead zone, it’s not due to corn. I’ll tackle the second claim first…
Lawn fertilization is contributing to hypoxia, at least at the local level. As the NCGA report says, we actually harvest a good portion of the N applied to corn fields, while none of the N applied to lawns is harvested. In fact, there is currently a watershed protection/rehabilitation project going on right in my neighborhood. Our stream is so polluted with N and P runoff that it’s hypoxic. Combine that with tons of fecal coliform and more N from dog poop runoff and we’ve got a problem!
Valuable information on conservation buffers is still flowing from Bear Creek in Story County, Iowa. A riparian buffer first established in 1990 on the Ron Risdal farm has been studied extensively for ten years (USDA NRCS via Wikipedia)

A collaborative of community members, the City of Ames, Iowa State and USDA researchers are working to build buffer strips of trees and grasses along the stream, along with an educational campaign encouraging people to use less fertilizer and pick up after their pets. I hope this effort is being repeated across the country, especially for golf courses.
A bit of an aside: similar problems exist along streams in farmer’s fields, as they try to plant as much of their land as possible, instead of leaving riparian buffer strips to absorb fertilizer (chemical or manure) and pesticides. Work done by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Leopold Center of Iowa State has shown that many benefits can come of riparian buffer strips, which can (among other things):  “cut nitrogen and phosphorus in runoff as much as 80%” and “cut sediment in surface runoff as much as 90%”.
In my Sustainable Ag Colloquium class, we’ve had speakers discuss using the buffer strip as an additional source of income, growing fruit trees and bushes as well as other crops that can be sold locally for relatively high prices. The area may also be used for recreation.
The report also mentions sewage as a source of N. I don’t know what is happening specifically in the Midwest, but I know sewage is a huge problem in the Chesapeake. Maryland’s sewage and water treatment systems were made at a time when they didn’t anticipate such population growth. Consequently, whenever it rains, the sewers overflow into the streets and right into the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Not just disgusting, it’s bad for the environment and human health. I’d be surprised if other cities didn’t have similar issues.
All of that said, while lawns and sewage are sources of N that need to be addressed, it’s preposterous to say that N runoff from corn fields isn’t a factor. On a perfect field in a perfect year, little N would be lost, but we rarely get perfection. Instead, we get ill timed rains that wash away fertilizer and fields that drain right into watersheds.
As I said before the update, NCGA would be better off admitting a role in N runoff and working with other organizations to solve the problem. As for denying the existence of the dead zone, such talk completely contradicts decades of work by USGS and others. NCGA denies any correlation between hypoxic area and input of N from waterflow, but this graph by Louisiana U researchers is quite clear. I don’t know what happened every year, but here are some examples. In 1993 there was a great flood that washed extra N into the Missippi River basin, which is correlated with an increase in hypoxic area. In 2000 there was a drought so very little N was washed into the basin, correlated with a steep decrease in hypoxic area. In 2008 there were terrible floods in Iowa, so I’m surprised that year isn’t higher, perhaps the floods were local?
I wonder if I could get a guest post from one of the grad students at LA U to help explain the correlations. As for the fish and shrimp catch data presented in the report, I just wanted to point out that the Gulf of Mexico is pretty big. I don’t know how much the catch data for the whole Gulf reflects on the area that is said to be hypoxic. It would be a lot better to have research vessels do catch and release in the areas that are supposed to be hypoxic to determine a correlation between O2 levels in the water and various marine species, or at least collect information from fishermen in those areas. Maybe this has been done, but I must go do an experiment myself, no time to look this up.
This report, as is typical, shows that more studies need to be done and better models need to be made. It doesn’t invalidate all that is known about hypoxia. I just wish that NCGA had tempered their tone rather than saying that all of the other researchers are wrong. If they are wrong, then prove it! I’m not holding my breath, but perhaps the fish have to.