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The Killing Fields: Industrial Agriculture, Dead Zones and Genetically Engineered Corn

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Scientists are predicting one of the largest dead zones ever in the Gulf of Mexico this year, with estimates ranging from 7,286 to 8,561 square miles, or as large as the state of New Jersey. Dead zones are the oxygen-deprived bottom waters of bays and oceans. The lack of oxygen kills off bottom-dwelling marine organisms and chases away others that can no longer survive in them.

At least 400 dead zones have been identified in coastal oceans around the world. One of the biggest is in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf dead zone is an annual occurrence caused mainly by fertilizer runoff in the Mississippi River watershed. Nitrogen from fertilizers seeps into local waterways and then the Mississippi River, and makes its way south into the Gulf, where it promotes dense algae growth on the sea floor. When the algae die at the end of the season, the decomposition sucks up much of the available oxygen, making the bottom waters uninhabitable to animals. According to researchers, 153,000 metric tons of nutrients, most from chemical fertilizers, flowed in to the Gulf in May alone.

Corn is the most chemical-intensive crop grown in America, accounting for nearly half of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer use, as well as 40 percent of herbicides and over 80 percent of the gender-bending weed-killer atrazine. Corn acreage has been rising for a number of years, driven by demand for corn to make ethanol. Today, ethanol claims an astounding 40 percent of the U.S. corn harvest. As a result, over 97 million acres of corn were planted this year, the highest on record since 1936.

With historically high levels of corn cultivation has come a sharp rise in the practice of planting corn every year instead of rotating it (i.e. growing it in alternate years) with other crops like soybeans. Corn-on-corn, as it's known in farming circles, exacerbates the adverse impacts of corn cultivation in a number of ways, including still greater fertilizer use, more fungicide spraying, and more soil-eroding tillage.   
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