The red tide/blue-green algae crisis is an opportunity for us – scientists and farmers – to do more for Florida’s water quality.
For starters, we can broaden the conversation beyond farms. We need to include anyone who has a lawn, drives city streets or flushes a toilet. I think you can see where I’m going here.
Even I hadn’t realized how much the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences could contribute to the protection of water quality until Karl Havens, director of Florida Sea Grant, helped me inventory our expertise.
UF/IFAS soil and water scientists can help determine what the most effective mitigation measures are. Our agricultural engineers are developing artificial intelligence, robots, drones, smartphone apps and other technology to guide the most sparing use of fertilizer and water. Fisheries experts work with our aquaculture farmers to monitor how underwater “crops” are affected. Agriculture and natural resource economists examine the tradeoffs involved in policy choices. Communicators help dispel misperceptions and tell success stories.
In short, we have one of the largest groups of scientists studying a broad array of water quality issues of any university in the United States. Not only that, but we have a long history of making a difference by partnering with groups that can help put solutions into practice: water management districts, state and federal agencies and local governments.
There’s another key partner: you. We’ve worked on this together for decades.
For example, since UF/IFAS began working with growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee, the amount of phosphorus – a nutrient on which algae feeds – in agricultural water entering the Everglades has been reduced by nearly 70 %.
Farmers statewide use UF/IFAS science to improve the way they farm. Best management practices are how we translate that science into recommendations.
But we need BMPs that will work for every farm. To get there, we’ll need to look at a wider variety of crops, more geographic areas and changing conditions that require us to update established BMPs.
Farmers are our partners in discovery. You lend us land to take ideas out of our labs, greenhouses, and research farms and to test them in the real world.
You also support us in Tallahassee. We’re gratified by the Farm Bureau’s support of state budget requests for resources essential to providing scientific solutions for more of your challenges.
Again, this conversation must go beyond the farm, so we’re involved in an emerging coalition of residents, businesses, municipalities, utilities and others.
There are many possible contributors to red tides and harmful algae blooms. We stand ready to work with anyone who’s a possible contributor to the solutions.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.