Researchers are finding ways to avoid the harmful environmental effects of farm chemicals. But while that work goes on, Idaho Agriculture director Dick Rush says, the state's farm industry may find it increasingly difficult to keep insects and weeds under control.

"I think we can work out some of the issues to protect endangered species, to protect farmworkers, to keep pesticides out of groundwater and still keep the agricultural industry alive," he said. "The problem is that for most of it we're 10 years off and yet right now we're losing the chemicals."Rush made his comments in an interview published in recent editions of The Idaho Statesman.

He said the environment has emerged as a key issue for the agriculture industry, which to a large degree has not been able to adequately explain its economic need for pesticides and herbicides.

As a result, farmers have gotten a "bad rap" as polluters, he said. Chemical companies have reduced their research on new agricultural chemicals, and those still available are becoming more expensive to purchase and use.

Rush said the focus of new research has turned to genetic engineering to develop sterile insects and plants that resist weeds and insects. But farmers, often operating on a tenuous financial base, may have trouble waiting for that research to yield usable alternatives to chemicals.

"I think in 10 or 15 years the need to depend on potentially harmful chemicals is probably going to be reduced somewhat because of new technology," Rush said. "But we just can't skip the next 10 years until it's available and still operate as an agricultural state."

But he said he is confident Idaho's economy will remain heavily dependent on agriculture. Idaho is one of only five states in the nation where more than 20 percent of all employment is agriculture-related.

"I think our economy will expand and will add more industry, but I don't think we'll reduce the agriculture that we have," Rush said. "I think agriculture is going to remain a major part of Idaho."