Opinion by James Herman and Wayne Mellor: Local ag pollution is down, but so is farming

Opinion by James Herman and Wayne Mellor
Local ag pollution is down, but so is farming

One can read all manner of truly dire reports about the global use of agricultural chemicals. Billions of dollars have been set aside to settle lawsuits alleging agricultural chemicals caused claimants’ cancers. Millions have been awarded, but we still do not have enough science to fully back up the claims. So where does Otsego County stand in relation to these reports?

Nationally, the number of farms declined by 23% from 1987 to 2017 when the last agricultural census was taken. However, the number of acres using agricultural chemicals for weed control has increased from 171 million acres to 293 million acres.

In Otsego County the number of farms decreased 28% from 1987 to 2017. Additionally, the number of acres with some type of weed control declined 33% to approximately 16,000 acres in 2017. The number of acres sprayed with insecticide decreased 56% to 1,700 acres.

This mirrors the 35% loss of cropland in Otsego County to the current 66,000 acres. We have been losing roughly 1,200 acres of cropland per year. Dairy farming has declined an astonishing 75%. One can conclude the reduction in ag chemicals here is mostly a function of cropland loss, rather than change in practice.

Monitoring our waterways is a good technique to identify pollutants where they arise. Currently, the levels of ag chemicals in Otsego Lake are well below the threshold recognized as harmful while the Susquehanna watershed needs more research.

The first state to pass significant legislation pertaining to ag chemicals and specifically Restricted Use Pesticides was Hawaii in 2018. State Senate Bill 3095 prohibits the use of chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic neurotoxin that causes significant damage to brain development in children. The bill also restricts spraying within 100 feet of a school. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also recently linked agricultural chemicals and other agricultural activities to species extinction.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation maintains a website www.dec.ny.gov/25.html that anyone can access. It addresses chemical and pollution control. The range of information is broad covering help for businesses, air pollution, waste management, environmental cleanup, water pollution, pesticides and chemical pollution control. The site requires the user to have the E.P.A. chemical ID to search for a specific chemical.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation also provides online data that is pinned onto a map so anyone can see what types of chemicals are being sprayed near them. New York should offer this feature, too.

Our good crop and pasture lands continue to be threatened not only by the bigger is better economics of present day agriculture, but also increasing development of our rural property for second homes and the prospect of large renewable energy projects.

There is a possibility climate change will reinvigorate our regional farm economy. If it comes true, the transition will be easier if we are good stewards of our remaining agricultural lands and conserve and protect what we have before it is gone.

This includes land use regulations to preserve farmland, our farms using best agricultural management practices, better statewide tools for monitoring chemical use, and adequate testing in our waterways to identify pollutants at their source. We also look forward to the next census in 2022 that will give an even better indication of the agricultural trends in our area.

Wayne Mellor is the chair of Sustainable Otsego and James Herman is a board member.


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