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California Alfalfa & Forage Association

A civil rights organization may seem like an unlikely source for agriculture to look to for advice on defending its turf to combat inaccurate information or change perceptions based on a lack of knowledge.

Several weeks ago Niger Ennis of the Congress of Racial Equality appeared on TV and discussed CORE's battle with environmentalists over the use of pesticides to combat a malaria epidemic in Africa.

Based on information from the World Health Organization, malaria causes over one million deaths each year. An estimated 80 percent of the deaths occur in tropical Africa. CORE's battle with environmentalists centers around its support for using DDT to control mosquitoes that spread malaria. What struck a chord during the interview was Ennis' comment that, when environmentalists make claims they are never challenged. He vowed that CORE would challenge its critics and not back down.

About the same time that Ennis appeared on TV, a major Bay Area newspaper ran an article on last September's fish kill in the lower Klamath River. Not surprisingly, only one side was covered and low water flow was cited as the culprit. In other words, agriculture was taking too much water.

Environmentalist were quick to blame Klamath Project operations for the death of 33,000 salmon. Whether the author of the newspaper article was biased or failed to do research, agriculture was short changed again with a one-sided article.

‘Several major errors’

The Klamath Users Water Association (KWUA) has done a good job of presenting information that there's a strong case that the claim of fish-die off due to low water flow contained “several major errors,” citing a report by a fisheries biologist with 28 years of experience. The findings, which are on the KWUA Web site, were incorporated into a declaration submitted early this year in a court case before a federal judge. The author of the newspaper article who sided with environmentalists on the cause of fish kills could have written a balanced story by doing a simple Internet search.

Both the CORE and Klamath River debates underscore the need to weigh in on important topics and challenge erroneous information and/or achieve balance in reporting on critical issues.

In the case of CAFA, the most recent effort to present the “other side of the story” involves the Imperial Valley, and the Department of the Interior's notice regarding “recommendations and determinations” involving the use of Colorado River water for 2003. During the “public comment” period, CAFA wrote a letter and pointed out that in water discussion, “alfalfa is invariably mischaracterized as a low-value crop that doesn't merit the irrigation water needed to achieve economic viability.”

The letter emphasized the important contributions alfalfa makes to the economy and the environment and was accompanied by CAFA's 24-page booklet, Alfalfa, Wildlife and the Environment. In the past several months CAFA has responded to several requests from Imperial Valley sources and distributed approximately 200 booklets. It's one step in a larger effort to educate the public and policy makers on the importance of alfalfa and challenge the claim that it's a low-value, water wasting crop. As recent events demonstrate, agriculture needs to be proactive to have its side of an issue heard.

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