Corn Growers: Stuck in the Sandbox

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When there’s trouble in the sandbox, kids are likely to point at each other and say, “He did it.”

As we get older, most of us mature to the point where we’re able to accept responsibility for the problems we cause and say, “I’ll fix it.”

Not so the corn growers.

When it comes to the massive problem of nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River basin, the big agricultural operations that blanket their fields with nitrogen fertilizer and manure make a habit of saying, “Not me!” They and their highly paid lobbyists turn the other way and point the finger of blame at everyone else – urban lawns, golf courses and sewage treatment plants.

Not long ago, the National Corn Growers Association tried to bolster its case by trotting out a “study” prepared by a StrathKirn Inc., a “specialized consulting” firm whose motto is: “The business of science and the science of business.”  StrathKirn, based in Chesterfield, Mo., lists clients on its website such as Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bayer CropScience, Cargill, ConAgra, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta and a long, long lineup of other Big Ag companies.

Surprise, surprise, the study concludes that corn can’t be to blame for the Mississippi basin’s nitrogen pollution and the sprawling Dead Zone it feeds every year in the Gulf of Mexico. Why not? Because, the consultants said, the corn crop takes up more nitrogen from the soil than gets deposited on it, leaving little or nothing to be washed away into rivers and streams and eventually go “runnin’ down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.” (Anyone else out there old enough to remember Johnny Horton’s 1959 hit, The Battle of New Orleans?)

EWG researchers Rebecca Sutton and Andrew Hug were skeptical of this boast, so they took a closer look at the data. It wasn’t easy, StrathKirn provided no citations or documentation for many of the numbers it rolled out, but Sutton and Hug know where to find that stuff.

And here’s what they found.

The corn growers’ study based its calculations on an outdated (and too low) figure for the protein (and therefore nitrogen) content of modern hybrid corn, it disregards current farm practices that typically rotate corn crops with nitrogen-boosting soybeans, and it simply ignores the contribution from manure spread on many fields as additional fertilizer. There are a few other details, but you get the picture. Once you correct the company’s calculations for these factors, the supposed nitrogen “deficit” in the soil turns into a surplus of 3.2 million tons.

Guess where a lot of that tonnage winds up?

Hum a few bars now. “…runnin’ down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Funny thing about “studies.” If you pay for them, you stand a good chance of getting the results you want. Even in the sandbox.


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