Saturday, August 20, 2011

Presidential Candidate Rick Perry Championed Pesticides, Torpedoed Regs as Texas Ag Chief

As the harvest season approached in 1995, Texas cotton farmers had a boll weevil problem.

The agriculture industry, then one of the biggest in the nation and vital to the Lone Star State's economy, projected that the beetle -- which feeds on cotton -- could wipe out its crop.

Then-Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry had a solution. The Republican urged the cotton farmers to buy into a program to eradicate the pests using 250,000 gallons of the pesticide malathion.

It didn't go as planned. Malathion may have gotten rid of the boll weevils, but it also killed beneficial insects that helped keep the crop free of cotton-eating beet armyworms that invaded. As a result, the valley yielded 54,000 bales of cotton -- a far cry from the projected 450,000 bales. According to some estimates, malathion cost cotton growers $140 million in crop losses and put them $9 million in debt to the eradication program.

The episode is emblematic of the now-governor and presidential candidate's tenure as Texas Agriculture Department commissioner, which was marked by a laissez-faire approach to pesticide regulation. That philosophy made Perry the nemesis of environmental groups and government watchdogs, both of which charged that his department neglected its pesticide oversight and enforcement roles.

But it didn't hurt Perry politically. To the contrary, his early efforts on pesticides won the praise and support of Texas' powerful agricultural chemical lobby that, in fact, paved the way to his political ascendancy in the Lone Star State. more