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Logic takes a leap over hypoxic zone

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Scientists at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies know about hypoxic zones, but fall short of understanding of how corn for ethanol affects corn fundamentals.

That didn’t stop the institute from blaming the size of the hypoxic zone entirely on ethanol.

I have little doubt that the scientists at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies know a heck of a lot more than I do about the effects of the hypoxic zone on marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

But blaming it all on ethanol without possessing even a rudimentary understanding of agricultural statistics and analysis, is well, not very flattering to the concept of the scientific method.

In a news release the institute stated, “The Gulf of Mexico may be far from the corn fields of the Midwest, but it’s those fields that are causing a big problem for the Gulf Coast water this year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a record-size dead zone in the Gulf this summer, stretching from South Texas all the way to Alabama.”

This dead zone, according to Paul Montagna, chair and professor for the institute, “sets up in late spring and lasts throughout the summer,” and is caused when nitrogen-based fertilizer washes off farm fields in the Midwest Corn Belt, and ends up in the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf.

“The hypoxia zones are not dangerous to fish, but cannot support bottom-dwelling life such as clams, crabs and shrimp,” said Montagna. “Because fish avoid these areas, commercial shrimp boats and recreational fisherman must go further out, to open water, to make their catch.”

The NOAA projects this year’s zone to be as large as 8,561 square miles along the Gulf Coast.

With the huge increase in projected U.S. corn acres this year, to over 97 million acres, I would be hard pressed to disagree. I would add that agriculture needs to continue its effort to reduce levels of nitrogen leaving fields.

But when Larry McKinney, executive director of the institute, observed that the expected record size of the zone this year was entirely due to ethanol’s effect on corn prices, hence acreage, he took a rickety leap in logic over the hypoxic zone.

First, there is his mistaken belief that ethanol requires 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop. This year, it is closer to a projected 36 percent. Second, when you consider the percentage of corn-for-ethanol returned to the market as feed, the percentage drops to 25 percent. That’s a big difference.

Many market analysts agree that corn prices booked for the 2013 crop took off not because of ethanol demand, but because of short supplies brought on by the 2012 Midwest drought.

The institute’s mission statement reads in part, “to sustain an environment to conduct meaningful and successful programs in research and education with highly qualified faculty, staff and students.”

They could start by boning up on their agricultural supply and demand fundamentals.

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