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On a Real ‘Eco-Trip’

David de Rothschild Probes Carbon’s Effects in Sundance Series

One of the hottest environmental programs slated to debut in 2009 could well be Sundance Channel’s “Eco-Trip: The Real Cost of Living,” an eight-episode series to air on Sundance’s environmental block of programming The Green, hosted by eco-adventurer David de Rothschild.

Mr. de Rothschild, author of “The Global Warming Survival Handbook” and an extreme sports competitor, naturopathic doctor and one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers, Class of 2007, plans to take viewers on a half-hour journey each episode, tracing the carbon cost of everyday items such as cell phones, bottled water, cotton T-shirts and salmon fillets.

“Every product has a journey,” Mr. de Rothschild says in the series pilot, “and that journey has an impact” on the earth and its resources.

“I’m a converted consumer,” Mr. de Rothschild said of the series, “and I’m trying to take these issues to the public and hope that the format will appeal to other consumers. I just want to allow the viewer to go on the journey with me and ask the questions the viewers want to ask.”

The pilot episode, “Cotton,” finds Mr. de Rothschild traveling to an organic cotton farm and following the crop from planting to the cotton gin, where he measures the softness of the crop by throwing himself into a truckload of the fiber.

“The amazing thing was to find out that we eat and sleep on and wash with more cotton than we wear,” Mr. de Rothschild said.

Non-organic cottonseed oil is used in peanut butter, salad dressings and baked goods; the seed, along with “gin trash” from the cotton plant, also is used for cattle feed.

About 95% of the world’s cotton is grown using pesticides, he said, adding that cotton “uses less than 3% of the world’s farmland, but requires 25% of the world’s insecticides.”

In the pilot, Mr. de Rothschild also visits a family in California affected by pesticides used on neighboring farms.

“When you talk about carbon emissions, it can all be very abstract and cerebral,” he said. “We want to bring back the human element with personal stories of people who are directly affected by these things.

“You sit at a kitchen table with someone who says, ‘My children are losing their hair, my husband is losing his hair, his eyebrows,’ and you find out it’s because of the chemicals they’re exposed to in the field.”

According to the pilot, a single drop of the pesticide Aldicarb, a nerve poison developed in World War II that has been found in the drinking water of 16 states, can kill an adult when absorbed through the skin, yet “farmers apply 2 million pounds a year to cotton crops,” he said.

Another episode finds Mr. de Rothschild in search of the true cost of a farmed salmon dinner.

“The idea sounded good: You take prime breeding grounds for salmon—in this case, in British Columbia,” a place so beautiful that Mr. de Rothschild admits, “If I were a salmon, I would want to live there.

“You put sustainable farms there, right in with the wild salmon. It’s the equivalent of going to Montana and putting in a factory-farmed buffalo herd right in the middle of a wild buffalo herd. The two herds would cross-pollinate.”

The wild herd would soon start to show signs of diseases that plague the farmed herd, and against which the wild buffalo have no immunity, Mr. de Rothschild said, adding that it’s “the same with wild salmon. There are sea lice that attack the farmed salmon, and they get antibiotics. But the sea lice now also attack the wild salmon, and they have no defense against it.

“The salmon farmers have known this for 25 or 30 years, but they continue to farm in a way that’s irresponsible.”

Even the so-called wild salmon we eat from the northern Pacific is not necessarily wild, he said. “The fish return to where they were born, so they raise a fish in the farm for several years and then release it. When it returns to its spawning ground they catch it and label it ‘wild’ in the market.”

The series is produced by NBC’s Peacock Productions and executive produced by Colleen Halpin.

Mr. de Rothschild, heir to the Rothschild banking fortune and dubbed “one of England’s greenest aristocrats” by National Geographic Adventure magazine, plans to set sail in the Pacific later this fall on the Plastiki, a boat made entirely from post-consumer plastic bottles.

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