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Hypoxia Fact Sheet

The Facts on Ethanol, Corn Production, and Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico

In an attempt to divert attention away from the ongoing oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico,
impacts of increasing grain and ethanol production. Specifically, detractors are suggesting that
expanded grain and ethanol production in the Midwest is leading to a larger hypoxic area (often
erroneously referred to as the “dead zone”) in the Gulf of Mexico. However, data and information from
government agencies, university researchers, and other sources reveals that there is no correlation
whatsoever between recent trends in corn and ethanol production and the size of the Gulf of Mexico
hypoxic zone.
What is Hypoxia?
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, hypoxia occurs when oxygen concentrations in water fall below
the level necessary to sustain most animal life. Hypoxia results when oxygen consumption exceeds
oxygen production through photosynthesis and replenishment from the atmosphere. The presence of
excess nutrients in water is thought to lead to reduced oxygen concentrations.
What are the Causes of Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico?
Since the Gulf hypoxic zone was first discovered in the 1970s, scientists have struggled to identify its
specific causes. It is generally believed that the presence of excess nutrients—such as nitrogen and
phosphorous—in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers lead to the formation of the hypoxic zone every
summer. However, determining the precise sources of those excess nutrients has proved challenging. 
While some scientists suggest agricultural fertilizers are a primary source of excess nutrients, others
believe residential lawn fertilizers, urban storm water run‐off, sewer overflows, industrial discharge, and
dumping by marine vessels are significant contributors. In fact, Southeast Missouri State University
professor and soil scientist Michael Aide says, “…credible evidence shows that [excess] nutrients [in the
Gulf] may also be derived from atmospheric deposition, sewage and industrial discharge and fertilizer
runoff from residential areas. Nutrient runoff from suburban areas roughly equals that of agricultural
lands.”1 Further, the scientific community believes naturally occurring events—such as weather
patterns, flooding, and atmospheric deposition—significantly contribute to the occurrence and
magnitude of hypoxia in the Gulf.
The uncertainty surrounding the sources of excess nutrients in the Gulf and the tremendous year‐to‐
year variability in the size of the hypoxic zone was recently acknowledged by an interagency task force
convened to examine the issue. The group recognized that “…uncertainties remain in the ability to
characterize the spatial and temporal dynamics of hypoxia and the biological, chemical, and physical
properties that contribute to it.”2


 Aide, Michael. Letter to the Editor. Southeast Missourian. February 10, 2008.
 The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force is a federal interagency working group that includes


representation from  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture,
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Council on
Environmental Quality and various state agencies from Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio,
Tennessee, and Wisconsin. The draft Action Plan is available at

© 2010 Renewable Fuels Association. All Rights Reserved

Is the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone Growing as U.S. Corn and Ethanol Production Increases?
Detractors of the biofuels and agriculture industries have attempted to suggest increased corn and
ethanol production in the Midwest is causing the Gulf hypoxic zone to expand. Yet, data from university
researchers and government agencies tells a much different story. At 3,000 square miles, the Gulf
hypoxic zone in 2009 was the smallest in 10 years and the second‐smallest in the last 20 years.
Meanwhile, farmers harvested the largest crop on record and the ethanol industry produced a record
amount of biofuel. The hypoxic zone may be relatively small again in 2010. According to a USGS official,
the 2010 spring nutrient load transported to the northern Gulf of Mexico is about 11 percent less than
the average over the last 30 years.3 Data from university and government sources clearly show that
there is absolutely no correlation between the size of the annual Gulf hypoxic zone and yearly corn and
ethanol production. 

Gulf Hypoxic Zone Size and U.S. Ethanol Production

Square Miles (Hypoxic Zone)
Million Gallons (Ethanol Prod.)






Hypoxic Zone Area (sq. miles)

Ethanol Production (million gals.)


Gulf Hypoxic Zone Size and U.S. Corn Production

Square Miles (Hypoxic Zone)
Million Bushels (Corn Prod.)








Hypoxic Zone Area (sq. miles)

Corn Production (million bushels)


Sources: U.S. EPA, Louisiana Universities Maritime Consortium (LUMCON), USDA, RFA


Matt Larsen, USGS associate director for water.

© 2010 Renewable Fuels Association. All Rights Reserved

What are Farmers Doing to Mitigate Their Environmental Impacts?
Midwestern farmers are actively engaging in practices to conserve soil, restore and enhance
wetlands, and reduce nutrient application. A number of new technologies and practices—such as
the use of nitrogen inhibitors and variable application technologies—are making fertilizer
application more efficient than ever. The amount of fertilizer applied per bushel of corn produced
continues to decline. It is estimated that in 2005 (the most recent year for which fertilizer
application data is available), U.S. farmers applied nearly 40 percent less nitrogen and 51 percent
less phosphate per bushel of corn than was applied in 1980.
1980 2005 Change (%)

Corn Production

Corn Acres Planted

Corn Acres Harvested

Corn Yield

Total Production

Nutrient Use per Bushel Produced

Nitrogen per bushel

Phosphate per bushel

Potash per bushel

Aggregate Nutrient Use

Total Fertilizer Used




mil. bu.


















mil. tons













Sources: USDA; The Fertilizer Institute

Additionally, most corn produced today is grown under conservation practices, which reduces the
potential for nutrient loss and erosion. According to a recent Conservation Technology Information
Council survey, nearly 55 percent of farmers surveyed are practicing conservation tillage and 77
percent are engaged in crop residue management. Only 23.5 percent of farmers used conventional
tillage in 2006, down from nearly 40 percent in 1990. Conservation tillage practices reduce rainfall
runoff by more than 60 percent and soil loss by more than 90 percent.
Further, in the next several years, seed companies are expected to introduce corn hybrids
containing biotechnology traits designed to further increase corn nitrogen, phosphorous and
potassium utilization efficiency.

© 2010 Renewable Fuels Association. All Rights Reserved

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