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Why Corn Ethanol is Bad for the Environment

written by: •edited by: Carly Stockwell•updated: 1/6/2014

Corn Ethanol is currently mixed with American gasoline and is often marketed as being cleaner and better for the environment. The truth is it can actually be just as damaging to the environment as gasoline. Learn more here.

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    Why Corn Ethanol is Damaging to the Environment Corn ethanol has been promoted as a viable alternative to gasoline. There is even a federal mandate requiring the blending of ethanol with gasoline with the percentage of required ethanol increasing over time.

    The problems with using corn ethanol this way are legion. It is more expensive to produce than gasoline and the use of corn for fuel drives up the cost of food. But, a major problem with the use of corn ethanol is its incredibly negative impact on the environment.

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    Conversions of Wetlands & Grasslands to Croplands

    The EPA mandate for increasing the use of corn ethanol in the manufacture of gasoline has resulted in farmers plowing up their wetlands and grasslands and planting corn. In the last four years, 23 million acres of wetlands and grasslands were turned into cropland. In just four years, more wetlands and grasslands were lost than were lost in the previous 40 years. Some of the negative effects on the environment include:

    Croplands do not absorb as much carbon as wetlands and grasslands: Grasslands capture carbon better than croplands. This means more carbon is released into the atmosphere when the lands are turned into croplands. Any advantage to carbon reduction in using ethanol over gasoline is therefore lost. Because of this, experts have determined that any carbon footprint benefit to using corn ethanol over gasoline cannot possible be realized for at least 93 years.

    Growing corn uses up the water supply: Corn needs more water than any other crop. Currently, drought conditions exist in the corn belt of the Great Plains and the Midwest. Some reports say the groundwater levels have plummeted by more than six feet.

    More water means more fertilizer and pesticides: When more water is needed for irrigation, more fertilizer is washed off the fields. When fertilizer is washed off the fields, the pesticides are also washed off and seep into the underground water system. The water becomes polluted.

    This also results in the destruction of wildlife habitats. The poor quality of the water due to the infiltration of fertilizer and pesticides also kills aquatic life due to depriving the water of oxygen, resulting in “dead zones.” The Gulf of Mexico has a dead zone of more than 5,800 square miles which is associated with the polluted water resulting from corn production for ethanol.

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    Production of Corn Ethanol Releases Air Pollutants

    In 2011, the National Academy of Science published a report explaining that the production of corn ethanol to replace gasoline “is likely to increase air pollutants such as particulate matter, ozone, and sulfur oxides.” These air pollutants are all considered to be more damaging to people’s health than any pollutants released from gasoline production or use. Some are even believed to contribute to climate change.

    In addition, the use of corn ethanol as a gasoline replacement releases benzene, a known carcinogen, into the environment. Benzene can also cause respiratory problems, such as asthma and bronchitis.

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