Ending the Toxic, Costly and Unnecessary War on Invasive Plants. Now.

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?

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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?

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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?

How can it be that the CRD and Vancouver Island municipalities promote “pesticide free” policies or even ban them for home use, all the while using them in our parks?

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”. 

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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.  

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The Dreaded Garlic Mustard

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.

Caption:Farmers Matt Wiggeim, right, and Cody Gibson mix Monsanto Co.'s Roundup herbicide near a corn field in Kasbeer, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, June 13, 2011. Corn fell to a one-month low and soybeans declined on speculation that favorable weather will boost yields in the U.S., the world's biggest grower and exporter. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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.

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The result of habit restoration by pesticide use in Uplands Park. Two years after the application all that is growing is the blackberries – the target of this pesticide application in the first place.

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.”

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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.

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Here is Part One – Invasive Plants: Noxious Foe or Remedial Friend?

Resources:

22 Comments Add yours

  1. Eco-Sense says:

    I very much appreciated your post. I sit on the Capital Region Invasive Species (CRISP) group, and share many of your concerns. I am a councillor in the District of Highlands, run a nursery, and am also one of the co-creators of Eco-Sense, a home and lifestyle that demonstrates a different approach to existing on this little blue dot. If invited, would you be willing to share your thoughts with CRISP? I can not say if they would or would not be willing to hear your voice, but I would like to tempt them. The folks that I sit with at the table are generally conscious of chemicals, though are more lenient in allowing them than I. In the Highlands, we are looking at a pesticide ban for numerous reasons, some of which you touched upon.

    In that light, and if you were willing, I would try and offer up the opportunity to speak to Highlands council. I look forward to hearing back from you.
    Thanks,
    Gord Baird
    Councillor – District of Highlands and CRISP member.

    Like

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      Hello and thank-you for this. Thinking about it… The thought is a little intimidating of course – I am no expert at all in the matter. But if my voice, in support of others, could assist in the banning of pesticide/herbicides in the Highlands – well, that would make me happy indeed. So maybe? Would just need some time to get prepared and wrap my mind around it!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. bonwyn says:

    Oh no, it’s not conspiratorial. It’s simply daily business for major chemical corporations. It’s called developing a market. They create a demand by having influential scientists promote the new idea of not just weeds but something that sounds much worse–invasive species–can tap into that fear of the Other, of immigrants, etc. Read the article in Harper’s magazine this month about Monsanto’s very open efforts to create the concept of invasive species, using people at National Geographic to legitimize the concept. Here is the link: http://harpers.org/archive/2015/09/weed-whackers/

    It’s an excellent article and it proves yet again that corporations will manipulate public opinion in order to create govt departments that are using tax dollars to buy and apply toxins to plants for the sole purpose of profiting corporations. It really is a huge waste of money, those funds could be put to social programs, and not to poisoning the wetlands and other wild spaces. So keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Christina says:

    When I was in Yale last summer, I noticed that the CNR maintenance people had glyphosate notices all over that little town. They were spraying within feet of people’s vegetable gardens, and uphill from family yards so that the rains would run that crap down into them… I saw stalks valiantly trying to grow in spite of it in the Japanese knotweed by the river that had stems five times the thickness. Where the roundup allowed plants to still fruit, birds were eating it… Egads, I say. Egads.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      Yes that is happening here too. And I suspect in many other places as well.

      Like

  4. morgenmaker says:

    Thank you for this article. I wondered about this myself. I am a gardener and forager (for food, plant dyes and medicinal). There is no way that toxic herbicides are good for anything but their ability to kill and create wealth for rich corps(e). I have harvested wild blackberries regularly when I lived in Victoria years ago as a poor student family and roundup was a constant worry to me. I am a beekeeper now in the Koots – thank-you for this.

    Like

  5. I feel your fury, Danielle. Our local council is spending an obscene amount of money annihilating our river ecosystems to eradicate willow from our waterways. The willow needs management, yes; and one of our local heroes, (and one of the founders of Permaculture), presented a model doing that before they started bulldozing. He demonstrated how the project could be done gently, with few resources, utilizing the willow for community and stockfeed and actually improving the landscape.
    The council ignored him, and what used to be a lush wildlife corridor has turned into a razed site of desolation. You can feel nature hurting. It hurts too that in the main the violence is community supported; there is so much fearmongering about willow here (in Australia). Sometimes I feel like I’m part of the problem; it’s hard to swallow the rage to educate people about it in a way that isn’t scary!
    Thank you for your words. It is good to hear from people who care.

    Like

  6. Tao Orion says:

    Hi Danielle,
    Thanks for this great article. Nathan mentioned my book Beyond the War on Invasive Species above, and here’s a snippet from the book posted on Earth Island Journal: http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/elist/eListRead/invasive_species_arent_the_actual_problem_theyre_merely_a_symptom/?fb_action_ids=10205018628565372&fb_action_types=og.likes. Let me know if you need any support or resources as you continue to delve into this issue in your area. Also, I’m planning a trip north later next spring (I live in Oregon), so maybe we could meet up and plan a larger event/workshop/presentation in Victoria? Just a thought. Hope you’re well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      And thanks too for your amazing work – I was planning to explore some of your writing in future articles. Your offer to help/ and or organize an educational event is timely. We’ve been considering holding a “Gather Salon” on the topic and invite experts such as yourself! So lets connect soon. And I may be contacting you for a comment or two for upcoming blog posts. Thank-you!

      Like

  7. Marcus says:

    The war on invasives does seem to be a part of the mentality that created our ecological degradation rather than the worldview we will need to heal it.

    Like

  8. Brian Williams says:

    In terms of the utility of a nonnative invasive plant, those who espouse novel ecosystems and their functions have never dealt with kudzu. Kudzu, without human management, destroys forests. It smothers the overstory trees and ensures that no saplings will ever make it to adulthood. There is no natural check on kudzu in North America. It will continue growing until the entire area is a kudzu barren. Once it has fixed enough nitrogen in a depleted soil, perhaps something else will come along, but from my experience that something else tends to be Japanese hops, which is equally deleterious to growth of forests. In my opinion, the ability of kudzu (without human management activity to check its growth) to transition an entire forest biome into an undifferentiated mass of herbaceous vines, is an anthropogenic tragedy on par with climate change.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Chris says:

    I certainly don’t know how to value the preservation of a species like buffalo clover or how to measure the harm in allowing Rubus armeniacus to subsume the last population of Rubus centralis. Perhaps you are promoting a connection to the natural world in foraging for Rubus armeniacus. Perhaps Rubus centralis would prefer that you not. I don’t know the answers just as I don’t know if I will use herbicide to establish a wildflower planting where a thick mat of Japanese honeysuckle is currently growing. We’ll see how it goes.

    Like

  10. Larry says:

    I think this may have begun when Ronald Reagan was governor of California, (late ’60’s?) and decreed that it was cheaper to spray the road shoulders and lane dividers, than it was to mow.

    Like

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      Yes, and I’ll be taking a closer look at this in an upcoming post.

      Like

  11. Colleen says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on this topic, but it’s still a tough one to sell to many environmentalists, unfortunately. I worked in Yosemite National Park for 10 years and you wouldn’t believe the amount of spraying that goes on in that supposed protected area. I understand that they believe that it is for the good of native ecosystems, but is spraying toxic chemicals ever good? Also, we most certainly will never get rid of non native plants no matter how hard we try. Plants are plants, as people are people, and we all have the right to go where we please. Thanks for this great series!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      🙂

      Like

  12. marijamiko says:

    Great article. Interestingly, in some of the wild food Facebook groups I’m in, I have seen some backlash against those who are still on the nativist track. Maybe the tides are turning among the foraging community, or at least in some small segments.

    Like

  13. Hollie B. says:

    Very, very well said. Thank you.

    Like

  14. milliontrees says:

    Thank you for this post and for your advocacy to stop the pointless eradication of non-native plants, especially using herbicides.

    Know that you are NOT alone. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area there are thousands of us trying to stop the destruction of our urban forest (which is not native) and the use of pesticides in our public parks. Here are a few websites in the San Francisco Bay Area devoted to this issue:
    http://milliontrees.me/2015/11/27/public-opposition-to-pesticide-use-in-our-public-parks/
    http://sutroforest.com/2015/11/01/sierra-club-alienates-its-would-be-allies/
    http://sfforest.org/2015/12/08/truck-size-loopholes-in-san-franciscos-pesticide-plan/

    The crusade against non-native plants is not going to stop until the public demands that it stop. There is a great deal of public money being spent on these projects and the manufacturers of pesticides are benefiting. There is so much economic interest in the crusade that a great deal of noise will be necessary to stop it. So, welcome to the battle!!

    Like

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