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The Adventure of the Strangled Gulf

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Author’s Note:  I offer this blog with profound apologies to the
late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and in support of H.R. 3650, which was
recently passed by the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of  the
House Science and Technology Committee.  This bill would create two
national programs, coordinated by the National Oceanic &
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to address impacts of algal blooms
and hypoxia. The first of these programs would provide resources to
respond to the appearance of blooms and hypoxia when requested to do so
by a state.   The second proposes a network for observing, monitoring
and forecasting such events.  This legislation will come up next for a
full committee vote.

Having been summoned to accompany Mr. Sherlock Holmes to America, I
presumed we were traveling to the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. 
Owing to its insufferable heat and vapors,
and mindful of the fact that autumn in the Southern reaches of the
United States can be stultifying, I prepared a wardrobe of light linens
and silks.

Upon meeting Holmes at Heathrow, I noted that his luggage appeared
to contain a considerable volume of clothing and effects.  “I say,
Holmes, you look as if you are preparing for a sojourn to the far
northern reaches of the continent rather than a genteel exploration of
the land known colloquially as “Dixie” said I.  Holmes regarded me with
equal measures of bemusement and sufferance.  Said he “Watson, the victim of this crime
certainly can be found south of New Orleans in the vast reaches of the
Pacific Ocean’s Gulf of Mexico.  However, that is not our destination.”

“But Holmes,” I protested, “the sum of my experience observing your
investigative method encourages within me the instinct to gather and
assess the evidence directly at the scene of the crime.”  I paused for
his response, but received only a long, pensive stare.  Continuing,  I
protested further, “Is it not rudimentary to the best implementation of
the forensic sciences that evidence of the crime be gathered at the

“Exactly,” shouted Holmes with an enthusiasm that at once startled
and intrigued me.  “Watson, you’ve hit upon the precise method called
for in this adventure.   However, the scene of the crime lies many
miles to the north, on the great drainage of the Mississippi River.”

Briefly reflecting on the quaint sound of the native vernacular used
in our former colonies, I requested of Holmes a further elucidation of
the facts in the case which would lead one to investigate the vast dead
zone developing in the Gulf of Mexico by attending to suspects and evidence in the rural reaches of the Midwestern United States.

“Consider this, Watson,”  began Holmes, drawing reflexively on his
favorite meerschaum, “the cause of death for this region is
strangulation, that is the deprivation of oxygen ,
a method of murder most cruel.   This in turn, my good man, results in
the death of all sea life rendering the waters in question completely
bereft, as it were, of the ability to sustain life.”

I will confess to a moment’s impatience in my response.  “Yes, yes,
Holmes, every school boy knows that algal blooms alter the natural
state of oxygenation of waters and result in a damnable series of
calamities leading inevitably to a lifeless ecosystem.  But how can
cause for such circumstance be induced by simple farm folk many miles

“Elementary, sir,” responded he with his characteristic aplomb, “the
agents of death originate not on the land of simple farm folk you have
heard of in folk songs and literature
of the Americas, but in richly appointed office chambers of certain
large corporations who manufacture, sell and spread upon the land
substances designed to provide synthetic nourishment and destroy all
forms of crop pests.”

“Quite so,” said I, “a service to the market place in my view.   Do
you know how difficult it is to grow tomatoes in a London hot house? 
Those aphids rendered most of my crop to rot and ruin.”

“Just so, Watson.  However, had you put poison on the fruit to
destroy the aphids, would you then have considered them fit for your
fine table?”

“I should say not, Holmes.  Is that the character of menace these corporations visit upon the fertile fields of America?”

Holmes paused, developing the  articulation of a line of reasoning
in his well  calibrated mind.  “The evidence points clearly to a
willfully malign chain of events.  Corn is grown in the Mississippi
River drainage  for food, yes, but also for silage, for a form of sugar that is pervasive in the American diet owing to its low cost for production, and, oddly enough, for a new form of petrol called ethanol to power the vast fleets of motor driven conveyances in the United States.”

“Well done, then.  Those Americans are most enterprising in their
agricultural endeavours.  They are to be commended for their
versatility wouldn’t you say,” said I.

“My good man, the Americans are to be commended for many things, but
the over-planting, fertilizing and and the infusion of pesticides in
the enterprise of corn monoculture is not among those things for which
praise is currently due.  The modern farming methods remove carbon from the soil, rather than replenishing it.  The use of fertilizers and pesticides
causes extravagant runoff into the Father of Waters, as the Mississippi
is  known colloquially, sending those substances down the water course,
through the fine city of Saint Louis, into the Mississippi River delta
and out into the Gulf of Mexico where they visit upon the ecosystem a
death by strangulation most foul and mordantly purposeful.”

I regarded Holmes with a degree of skepticism.  Certainly no group
of merchants, no matter how large or prosperous would engage in such overt criminal behavior
It would seem that the populace would rise up in protest demanding
their imprisonment and a great measure of restitution for their
crimes.  I said as much to Holmes and offered the perspective that the manufacture of petrol through cultivation of corn
must be, in and of itself, some license for variation from normal
societal protocol owing to the desperate state of climate change. 
Surely the substitution of an agricultural product for one which emits
carbon is desirable and worth some small measure of accommodation.

With characteristic dismissal of my well reasoned point, Holmes
deflated my argument without any artful pretense of ceremony.  “While I
would not agree with your basic premise that solving one problem by
creating another constitutes a reasonable bargain, it is clearly not
the case that even that dubious purpose is accomplished by rendering
corn into a combustible liquid.  The facts in evidence
do not support in any reasonable and rigorous scientific analysis the
proposition that this method of generating petrol reduces the carbon
emitted into the atmosphere.   In spite of the protestations of the
Senators and Representatives who hail from the corn producing states
and constitute the representative democracy for that constituency, the
science of the matter does not lead to validation of the premise of
their weakly wrought hypothesis.”

Once again, his eloquent reasoning having convinced me of the
accuracy of his deduction I inquired: “Who then, Mr. Holmes, are we
pursuing as suspects in this crime.  Who can be held to account for the
strangulation of the Gulf of Mexico?”

“There are several responsible parties, corporations who conduct large scale factory farm operations
as a component of their highly diversified business portfolio.   The
individuals who control those corporations made the decisions which
gave the profitability of their enterprise primacy over the health and
well-being of the public and the shared resources of the commons.  This
is a violation of law going back to the earliest traditions of law from which we draw much of our current system of  justice.  Among the suspects is a certain corporation known as ADM.”

“I say,” remarked I eagerly, “I have heard of them.  Doesn’t that stand for Archer Daniels Midland?”

“That is how it is represented.  However, I have a different
theory.  I believe that the initials actually stand for America’s
Devious Moriarty

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