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? To see my introduction to this series click here.
In Part One and Two I explored evidence suggesting that, in the long run, invasive plants may be doing more good than harm. In this post I’ll ask – how big a role has the chemical industry played in shaping our idea that invasive plants must be eradicated – no matter the cost?
It is the official position of the US and Canadian government, that “invasive alien species pose one of the most serious threats to our environment.” And it means that, all told, billions of dollars are budgeted for the use of herbicides like glyphosate and other poisons.
Recommended targets for herbicides found in chemical industry publications include a slew of nutritious and medicinal plants such as: Hawthorn, Himalayan Blackberry, Gorse, Fennel, Cottonwood, Elderberry, Wild Rose, Milk Thistle, St. Johns Wort, Burdock, Chicory, Garlic Mustard, Curly dock, Dandelion, Lambs quarters, Plantain, Cleavers and Wild lettuce – and this is only a partial list. What will be left when they’re through? Native plants that have been potentially poisoned by the application of herbicides and pesticides on their neighbors? As well as the ecosystem itself?
Timothy Scott, Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives, reminds us that a “war — either real or imagined — must be waged in order to gather together public support and funding from the government.” And like any war it requires propaganda. And he wants us to note that emotionally charged words such as alien, noxious, invasive, aggressive, harmful, disruptive, choking, are brought to us by the same companies whose products are being used to wage war on humans and the everyday war on pests – Monsanto, DuPont and the Dow Chemical Company. “These war factories are good at only two things: death and destruction.”
To this point, Toby Hemenway, author of The Permaculture City writes on his website “Quickly we see that unlike most scientific reports, papers in even academic journals such as Conservation Biology and Restoration and Management Notes bristle with xenophobic rhetoric: “all [species] should be treated as threats . . . unless proven otherwise.” Species are labeled “nefarious,” “stealing,” “stormtrooper plants,” and “intruders” that should be “weeded out” to “prevent their escape.” Hardly the language of objective science.”
Loosely described, Invasion Biology is the study of invasive plants and the processes of species invasion. And according to authors Timothy Lee Scott, Andrew Cockburn and David Theodoropoulos, it’s history is inextricably intertwined with the pesticide industry. Theodoropoulos is the author of Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience and he is blunt. “Every time you hear the word invasive species – think Monsanto.”
Theodoropoulos’s book charts how in the past two decades a new notion arose to keep environmentalists busy, “the notion that plants and animals have a “natural” habitat, from which outsiders must be expelled”. And he presents evidence how this view was actively supported and promoted by the financial might of Monsanto, Dow and Dupont. Theodoropoulos states “Thirty years ago the greatest threats to nature were chain saws, bulldozers, and poisons. Now the greatest threats are wild plants and animals. And what do we use to fight them? Chain saws, bulldozers, and poisons. Who does this serve?”
Recently Theodoropoulo’s claims that chemical company executives were founding members of many invasive species councils and organizations have been taken up by journalist Andrew Cockburn. In his article Weed Whackers: Monstanto, glyphosate and the war on invasive species in Harpers Magazine he writes, “During the Reagan era, when environmentalists were still imbued with the spirit of Earth Day, nobody worried about invasive species. Instead, well-organized, militant groups were busy fighting chemical pollution, nuclear power, shale-oil drilling, logging devastation, and other corporate onslaughts.”
But in the 1990’s Clinton signed Executive Order 13112, creating the National Invasive Species Council “to prevent the introduction of invasive species and provide for their control and to minimize the economic, ecological, and human health impacts that invasive species cause.” And a new environmental cause was born.
“Among the founding members of the council’s advisory committee was Nelroy E. Jackson, a product-development manager and weed scientist for Monsanto who had helped to develop Roundup formulations specifically for “habitat-restoration markets” — that is, for eradicating invasives.” Jackson represented Monsanto on the Invasive Species Advisory Committee from 2000 to 2006 and co-edited some of the council’s founding reports.
Cockburn’s article alleges another leader in the science of invasion biology Peter Raven had close ties to Monsanto. He chaired the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel, which considered the issue of invasive species and reported recommendations at the end of the year. His company, Cockburn notes, The Missouri Botanical Garden “owed much of its explosive growth to the beneficence of the corporation, which was in the process of changing its public identity from a chemical manufacturer and purveyor of Agent Orange to a “life sciences company” — one heavily invested in GMOs.”
Theodoropoulos and Boyce Thorne Miller (Science and Policy Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance) argue that much of the “scientific” evidence that is typically used to describe ecological harm can be equally interpreted to indicate ecological benefits. They claim that rather than being an environmental problem, many “invaders” like Cordgrass and Purple Loosestrife have been shown to be important for revitalizing damaged ecosystems, repairing depleted soils, cleaning up toxics, and increasing the rate of evolution. Invasion, Bryce Miller and Theodoropoulos claim, is an entirely natural phenomenon, and is essential for creating and maintaining biological diversity.
So when it comes to the research,Theodoropoulos charges that chemical companies are guilty of scientific misconduct when they misconstrue, make misleading statements and omit material facts – and are guilty of fraud when they profit from those statements.
Today it plain to see – if anyone looks as I did – that the chemical industry generously supplies educational and informational tools for the eradication of invasive species. And their presence, (i.e. instructing us how to “safely” use their products) is a common one at conferences and panels held by invasive species removal organizations here in BC and Canada.
Such as the upcoming North American Invasives Management Association in Vancouver BC. Its sponsors include Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Bayer and other chemical interests. So is it any coincidence that the keynote address “Toxicity and Pesticides. Weeding through new information about glyphosate and 2,4-D.” will be given by Dr. Len Ritter, Professor of Toxicology, School of Environmental Science, University of Guelph? Especially considering Ritter’s voice is one that cautions us not to get carried away with anti-pesticide hysteria?
Dr. Len Ritter, professor of toxicology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, displays graphs contained in the Canadian Cancer Society’s latest report that show new cases and age-standardized incidence cancer rates in men are declining in Canada and staying about the same for women. Ritter was speaking to growers, field workers and industry partners in the P.E.I. potato industry on recently. © HEATHER TAWEEL/THE GUARDIAN
I grant you the jury may be far “from in” as to whether Theodoropoulos’s or Scott ’s (and many other scientists, biologists and ecologists) contentions that invasive species are beneficial and part of the healing processes of nature. But so is the jury still out on the potential negative effects these noxious chemicals could be having on our environment.
Whether we want to debate whether the glyphosate in Round-up is an actual or “probable carcinogen”, new evidence is surfacing that Monsanto and the US Environmental Protection Agency knew glyphosate was a “probable carcinogen” thirty years ago. And since that time it has been indicated in countless studies to be implicated in ADHD, Alzheimers, Autism, Brain Cancer, Breast Cancer, Celiac and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Kidney Disease, Depression, Heart isease, Parkinsons, Lou Gehrigs, Multiple Sclerosis, Reproductive issues, Miscarriages, Birth Defects, Obesity, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Liver disease, and Respiratory illnesses – and the list goes on. Diseases which have personally touched my family and friends.
And remember too, this is only the estimated human impacts. What effect is the “controlled application” of products that “kill target alien species on contact or indirectly kill them or their offspring by damaging their essential life processes or ability to reproduce” —doing to the soil, the ground waters, the flora and fauna of the ecosystems in which it is being directly applied?
From what I understand, glyphosate works by disrupting an enzyme pathway essential to plants. And we’ve been told by the many chemical companies who use it – that since this pathway does not exist in animals, glyphosate is considered relatively safe for humans and wildlife. But even this too is being contested as this California lawsuit charges; that Monsanto is guilty of deliberate falsification and is concealing the fact that glyphosate is harmful to humans and animals.
Granted this all sounds conspiratorial and confusing to the extreme. And I’m certainly NOT implying that the whole field of invasion biology is without merit – but it’s pretty clear any research in which chemical companies like Monsanto have had a hand (either directly or indirectly) cannot be called neutral. I realize that while Theodoropoulos’s book is regarded by many as a “heroic expose on the corporate hijacking of an academic discipline”, there are many who point out that his theories are highly controversial, and that his research has yet to be published in credentialed scientific journals.
But nonetheless I resonate with his contention that the misperception surrounding invasive plants “arises from fear born out of our disconnection to the cycles of nature.” This, Theodoropoulos believes,” is being exploited by corporations and governments and is leading to widespread herbicide use in wildlands.”
So is it really so conspiratorial to suggest that the chemical industry is foisting anti-invasive propaganda on us that fattens their pockets? Perhaps here is good time to note, as journalist Cockburn did, that last year in the US alone, “the federal government spent more than $2 billion to fight the alien invasion, up to half of which was budgeted for glyphosate and other poisons.” Seems pretty profitable to me.
In the next post l’ll examine how pervasive the use of their toxic poisons in our city and provincial parks actually is. We’ll explore how and why their use is increasing – and where we as citizens are willing to draw the line between safety and risk.