This investigative series follows my personal exploration into a big question – is the toxic chemical war we are waging on invasive plants doing more harm than good?
I’ve had it. On a recent dog walk into Uplands Park, I was horrified to discover the landscape literally dotted with notices of herbicide applications of Glyphosate (think Round-Up) and Garlon. This was an area that I had previously believed was “pesticide free”. Now a herbicide is a pesticide by definition, so I gotta tell you, how can it be that everywhere I go, our local parks, crown forests or city green spaces, nourishing and medicinal plants (otherwise known as invasive weeds) are being “treated” with noxious chemicals?
In past three years I’ve been seeing more and more of these pesticide and herbicide application notices, so I wasn’t surprised to read in Pesticide Free Future that since 2012 “every BC municipality suddenly had an official plan for removal of invasive plants – specifically with herbicide – which seemed counter to the cosmetic pesticide bylaws being passed.” Is this true – and if so, why?
Why? What is the rationale? Well, as I’ve discovered it seems these chemicals are being used in a “war” against invasive plants which are deemed by the Canadian government to be one of the greatest “threats” to our environment. And one of the advocated solutions seems to be chemical control which chemical company publications tell us is more “time-efficient and cost-effective” than manual or mechanical removal methods, “especially on large sites”.
Now I fully acknowledge I’m no ecological expert. I’m just an ordinary citizen who is not yet sure whether chemicals proven to be harmful to life are actually benefiting our native ecosystems. But as I’ve discovered, questioning the conservationist ideology that invasive plants must be eradicated – at whatever the cost – is as close to modern sacrilege as it gets.
I’ve literally encountered eye widening shock and fist-shaking rage when daring to suggest that these “weeds” have an ecological purpose of their own. And I’ve been called everything from a “nitwit” to “dangerous” to a “science denier” and been banned from wild food facebook groups for voicing these views.
But in the past few years, we’ve seen the publication of many books, highlighting growing research in the fields of evolutionary biology, plant and soil ecology, bioremediation, plant pharmacology and climate change. And they suggest that invasive plants are actually healers, helping cleanse and repair damaged soils and waterways. In other words, they’re cleaning up the mess we’ve left behind.
Our fear that invasive plants will choke, overtake and colonise vast areas, killing off endangered native species in the process, may be shortsighted. It seems once invasive plants fulfil their ecological function (to heal the landscape) a natural balance would eventually occur, allowing these plants to naturally die back. This study concerns one of the most “noxious” weeds of all – garlic mustard.
Today the government and large conservationist agencies inform us that “controlled applications” of these chemicals is supposedly safe. Or at least worth the cost and the risk – when it comes to saving our endangered, indigenous species. According to a publication put out by the Nature Conservancy of Canada to stamp out Garlic Mustard “Glyphosate is widely considered the most appropriate herbicide for use on conservation lands”. Yet they also note here “The presence of synthetic chemicals in the environment, especially those designed to control unwanted species (insecticides and herbicides), and the acute and long-term effects of those chemicals on wildlife and humans have been of concern since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” in 1962.”
Boyce Thorne Miller, Science and Policy Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, is deeply concerned. And in this series, we’ll discover why she and many other scientists are disturbed at the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides used on invasive species. Thorne Miller states,“Basically, the cure is worse than the disease”.
Because as we’ll learn in a future post, the breadth of their use is, simply put, shocking – well, at least to me. And while we’re willing to tolerate short-term death and destruction for long-term rewards, the fact is, the research just isn’t in. In the long haul, whether our native ecosystems will benefit from the application of these chemicals – remains to be seen.
But who clearly is benefiting meanwhile is the chemical industry. Our war on invasive plants is pouring billions of dollars into the pockets of companies who create deadly poisons both for human warfare and for the everyday war on pests: Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow Chemical Company.
Conservationist David Theodoropoulos’s book, Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, conducted an examination of invasive-plant science and reveals a long-standing connection between invasion biology and the pesticide industry. Companies, as Theodoropoulos points out, which have a great deal invested in convincing us that invasive plants are our ‘enemy”. Companies, with the financial might to pay for their own ‘scientific research’ demonstrating why dangerous invasive plants must be eradicated. (see this post for more info)
Award-winning journalist, Bruce Livesay also explores this issue in his article Big Agro On Campus and he makes the point that every year, Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and DuPont collectively fund “scientific” research projects at universities which are “largely designed to examine the environmental and health impacts of their compounds.” So is it a coincidence that these studies claim that herbicides and pesticides pose no threat to people, wildlife, and the environment?
I resonate with Theodoropoulos contention that the misperception surrounding invasive plants “arises from fear born out of our disconnection to the cycles of nature.” This, he believes,” is being exploited by corporations and governments and is leading to widespread herbicide use in wildlands.” And while it might sound conspiratorial, I think it bears asking if the profitable war on invasives might dry up if we woke up and realised that the enemy is really our friend?
In my own wild food community, many have been extremely upset by these articles. And while many agree that pesticide use is not the answer – they ask that I stop questioning the very tenets of conservation itself. They feel these posts are undermining the cause that many have dedicated their lives to – restoring threatened native ecosystems.
But I’ve responded by asking how to question the use of noxious chemicals in our wilds – without questioning the rationale that lies behind their use? I’ve already been told, countless times, that while no one “likes” to use them, they are a necessary evil – for the reasons I’ve described.
Livesay’s article reminds us “About 3 billion kilograms of pesticides are sprayed across the globe annually; these chemicals constitute a $60 billion (US) market, and that number is expected to increase by one-third by 2019. In Canada, 100 million kilograms of pesticides were sold in 2014—up nearly 15 percent from five years earlier. Given the widespread use of these chemicals, it’s critical that agrochemical companies prove to regulatory agencies that their products are safe.
Permaculturist Tao Orion’s book: Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration explores alternative non-toxic methods of invasive plant control, and she writes “That large conservation and restoration organizations like The Nature Conservancy are allied with pesticide manufacturers like Monsanto, which have essentially manufactured the war on invasive species for their own financial benefit, is something that we have to think about very closely. This approach for managing species invasions does little to restore ecological functionality, especially on a larger scale.”
So if we truly “love this planet”, don’t we owe it to the earth and animals we love, to ask for an accounting of the use of pesticides in our city green spaces and forests by our parks and municipal representatives? I want to know how are they assessing the risk of potential long-term negative effects to the ecosystem, animals and human life?
Are we truly sure that noxious compounds – often applied again and again in the same areas, do not eventually accumulate in the soil, run into waterways or end up consumed by local wildlife? I believe the stakes are high, and I personally want to be sure – that what we are doing is right. Are we spending millions of federal, provincial and municipal tax dollars to counteract the remedial efforts of mother nature? Are we poisoning food, medicinal herbs and our local environments in the process?
In the next post, I’ll be delving into the research suggesting that a) invasive plants are fulfilling essential ecological functions, b) that our efforts to remove them is weakening our eco-systems and c) that the toxic war we are waging against invasive plants, is a battle being waged against nature herself.
Here is Part One – Invasive Plants: Noxious Foe or Remedial Friend?
- The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation
- Weed Whackers: Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species
- Special Investigation: The Pesticides and Politics of America’s Eco-War
- Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives
- Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration
- Where do Camels Belong: Why Invasive Species Aren’t all Bad
- Invasive Species Aren’t The Actual Problem, They’re a Symptom
- Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience
- Rethinking Invasive Species (video)
- Time To Stop Picking On Weeds and Non-Natives? (podcast)
- Big-agro-on-campus: Universities claim industry-funded research on chemical and pesticide safety is scientifically sound. Not everybody is convinced