Cotton's high ecological cost needs a touch of perspective

It is indicative of the times, one supposes, that in a region where agriculture — and particularly, cotton — has been, and still is, a major economic driver, it “don't get no respect,” to borrow a line from comedian Rodney Dangerfield.

Mid-South metropolitan newspapers and TV stations, which once had full-time agriculture editors and reported on the sector daily, now mostly relegate ag news to occasional articles in the business section or tidbits on early morning news shows. Often as not, what reporting they do is critical of farm programs, biotech crops, pesticides, and farming practices.

One newspapers recently featured a series of articles focusing on the history of the boll weevil, its impact on the region's cotton production/economy/environment, and benefits/costs of the highly effective eradication program.

The series was followed by an editorial, “Cotton's high ecological cost,” which included these statements:

“(The weevil war) … soaked up a third of all insecticides used in the nation … including some of the most toxic compounds ever produced. Farm workers and other rural residents have been sickened, bald eagles, brown pelicans, and peregrine falcons nearly wiped out. Massive fish kills have descended on the Mississippi River like a plague (and) … fish consumption remains a serious health risk in many streams throughout the Mississippi Delta because of lingering residues of now-banned poisons DDT and toxaphene.”

While noting that cotton farming practices have changed radically, that newer, more environmentally benign chemicals are being used at extremely low rates, and that production methods now use less water and cause less soil erosion, the editorial concludes that current farm bill negotiations “shouldn't omit the question of how to prevent a repetition of the cotton story in the future of U.S. agriculture. We've seen how it has played out in the Mid-South, and the environmental cost has been high.”

No one will realistically argue that agriculture, or cotton, has been environmentally blameless.

Agriculture has had its learning curve — but has it been any worse than auto, steel, and other heavy manufacturing industries of the north that dumped so many chemicals that rivers and streams became toxic sewers (one river even burst into flame) and that filled the air with choking, lung-clogging pollutants?

In just the last 50 years, agriculture has gone from field laborers, primitive machines, and witches brew insecticides to sophisticated equipment and chemicals that have undergone the most rigorous scientific and EPA safety testing.

DDT levels in the environment have declined manyfold since its ban 30 years ago, and despite the horror stories by opponents, there is not a single documented case of it causing cancer in humans (or any deleterious health effect, for that matter). Many reputable scientists contend that Rachel Carson's “Silent Spring” allegations about DDT's impact on avian species were grossly overblown.

Countless Americans suffered brain damage from lead in paint before we wised up and banned it; DDT, conversely, has prevented untold suffering and deaths by eradicating malaria in this country.

And mercury from power plants, waste incinerators, cement plants, wastewater treatment plants, and other sources has contaminated more water and fish, with a far more drastic health impact, than toxaphene and DDT combined.

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