Harper's Magazine: https://harpers.org/archive/2015/09/weed-whackers/
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
California native-plant partisans are a committed lot, and not only in their dislike of eucalyptus trees. Many of them are influential in local government, and they yearn to restore the treeless “native” grassland that greeted the first European settlers of the Bay Area in 1769. (For centuries, Native Americans had cleared the trees to facilitate hunting.) Thus the romantic Monterey cypress is a frequent target for the chain saws of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department — even though two small stands in Monterey, just fifty miles south, are cherished and protected as natives. The cypress is not the only item on the nativist hit list. Over the next few years, more than 450,000 trees in Oakland, Berkeley, and neighboring areas are due to be destroyed in the name of “wildfire-risk reduction.”
Defining “native” and “invasive” in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years. The National Invasive Species Council defines the enemy as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” But the late, great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould dismissed such notions as “romantic drivel.” Natives, he wrote, are simply “those organisms that first happened to gain and keep a footing,” and he ridiculed the suggestion that early arrivals “learn to live in ecological harmony with [their] surroundings, while later interlopers tend to be exploiters.”
Even so, anti-invasive ideology is prevalent across the country, from university biology departments to wildlife bureaucracies to garden clubs. In Virginia, where I spend part of my time, a nice lady from the Virginia Native Plant Society told me that her idea of a truly natural landscape was the one viewed by the Jamestown settlers in 1607. To that end, she sternly urged me to uproot my yellow-blossomed forsythia (of Balkan origin) and replace it with a “good native shrub.” In Texas, George W. Bush used to devote much of his presidential vacation time to destroying the tamarisk trees — reviled Eurasian imports — that grew on his ranch. Many states maintain invasive-plant councils (and sometimes exotic-pest-plant councils) to monitor and eradicate alien invaders. Last year, the North Carolina Invasive Plant Council gave its annual Certificate of Excellence to two forest rangers who had detected a small patch of cogongrass — an invasive unwittingly imported from Asia in packing crates, which the Vietnamese call “American weed,” because it spread on land defoliated by Agent Orange.
As it happens, an erstwhile supplier of Agent Orange, the Monsanto Company, also manufactures America’s most popular remedy for cogongrass: glyphosate. The active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and many other weed killers, glyphosate is the weapon of choice for battling all sorts of invaders. A 2014 study by the California Invasive Plant Council found that more than 90 percent of the state’s land managers used the compound, which is particularly recommended as a slayer of eucalyptus trees. Discussing Phragmites australis, the reed found in wetlands throughout the country, Massachusetts conservation officials similarly tout this “effective” weed killer. Pennsylvania urges glyphosate’s deployment against purple loosestrife, while Illinois recommends it for Japanese knotweed. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries prescribes it for cogongrass but warns that “multiple applications for full control” may be required.
This anti-invasive mania is not merely a local phenomenon. It is the official position of the federal government, as expressed by the State Department, that “invasive alien species pose one of the most serious threats to our environment, affecting all regions of the United States and every nation in the world.” In February, National Invasive Species Awareness Week was celebrated in Washington, complete with a reception on Capitol Hill. Last year, 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.
That’s small change, nativists argue, when measured against the damage such interlopers inflict on the national economy. The Department of the Interior claims that the annual tab is $120 billion. But this number comes from a 2005 report by David Pimentel, an ecologist and scholar at Cornell, whose dislike of aliens apparently extends to the human variety, as evidenced by his public opposition to both legal and illegal immigration. Pimentel extrapolated at least some of his findings from such dubious assumptions as the dollar value of grain consumed by each rat in the United States. In an earlier paper, he concluded that cats were costing us $17 billion every year, after calculating that our furry (and, in his view, non-native) friends kill an annual 568 million birds, and arbitrarily valuing each bird at $30.
On close examination, other examples of the damage said to be caused by exotic invaders look no less questionable. The supposedly supercombustible eucalyptus, for example, survives fires that consume surrounding plant life — and rather than unfairly appropriating water, the tree actually irrigates soil by absorbing moisture from the coastal fogs through its leaves and funneling it out through its roots. (Though still cited as the prime culprit in the devastating 1991 Oakland firestorm, the eucalyptus was in fact cleared of responsibility in a FEMA report.) Monarch butterflies belie its reputation for repelling wildlife, the eucalyptus being their favored wintering abode in California.
As for the tamarisk, it consumes no more water than the beloved cottonwood, native to the Southwest. Nor, contrary to rumor, is it inhospitable to other species, as certified by the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, which delights in roosting amid the tamarisk’s foliage. According to Matthew Chew, a historian of biology at Arizona State University, the tree’s sorry reputation dates to a ploy during the 1940s by a local mining corporation, whose operations required enormous quantities of river water — which had already been allocated to local farmers and other businesses. The solution was to generate studies demonstrating the heinous quantities consumed by the thirsty tamarisk. The destruction of the trees would theoretically free up huge quantities of “new” water in the rivers, which could then be used by the selfsame mining corporation.
Then there is the zebra mussel. This immigrant from the Caspian Sea is a perennial target of the nativists, thanks to its tendency to reproduce in vast numbers, encrust jetties, clog water-intake pipes, and crowd out God-fearing American mussels. But zebra mussels have successfully filtered pollution in the notoriously filthy Lake Erie and other waterways, thus promoting the revival of aquatic plants. The mussel also feeds a growing population of smallmouth bass and lake sturgeon.
It is the common reed, however, that has inspired one of the most determined and dubious campaigns of extermination. Phragmites is accused of robbing other plants, fish, and wildlife of essential nutrients and living space. Delaware has responded by spraying and respraying on an annual basis a 6,700-acre expanse of the Delaware River estuary with thousands of gallons of glyphosate-based weed killer. In 2013, locals in the Hudson River community of Piermont, New York, discovered a plan to destroy a 200-acre reed marsh fronting the town. Outraged, they fought back. “We love the marsh,” an indignant Marthe Schulwolf, who is active in opposing the scheme, told me. “It’s beautiful, a living environment, with lots of wildlife, and it protected us from the Hurricane Sandy storm surge.” The townspeople were especially alarmed to learn that the state’s “toolbox” for eradication included heavy spraying of herbicides — glyphosate being the customary choice — right next to two playgrounds.
As usual, the nativist dream of eradicating the interloper is intertwined with a fantasy of restoring the landscape to its “original” condition. The common reed has also covered vast stretches of the New Jersey Meadowlands, to the irritation of nativists who yearn for the return of the original cordgrass. Peter Del Tredici, formerly a senior research scientist at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, points out that the New Jersey Turnpike bears much of the blame: by blocking tidal flows, inimical to phragmites, it has allowed the reed to flourish. Ripping out the highway would bring back the cordgrass soon enough. “Meanwhile,” he adds, “there are over five hundred landfills in this area that are leaking nitrogen and phosphorus, and phragmites is actually cleaning the site up.” In any case, he said, the very idea of “re-creating a lost landscape is an impossibility, because the conditions under which these landscapes evolved no longer exist. The world is a totally different place as a result of human activity. There’s no going back in time.”
Mark Davis, a professor of biology at Macalester College and a frequent critic of anti-invasive hysteria, put it more pungently. “It’s the same perspective as ISIS wanting to re-create the seventh-century caliphate,” he remarked. “It’s ecological fundamentalism, the notion that the purity of the past has been polluted by outsiders.” Far from crowding out native species, he argued, invasives tend to move into areas that have been ravaged, or at least disturbed, by human activity. They are, in other words, a symptom, not a cause. Cogongrass is one striking example, but the same pattern recurs with many vilified species. Ailanthus, a salt-friendly seaside tree from China, spread inland from the East Coast along the fringes of America’s interstates, tracking the salt religiously spread by highway departments during winter snowstorms.
If the anti-invasive movement rests on such debatable foundations, why has it flourished in this country, winning endorsement from activists, local, state, and federal bureaucracies, and respected academics? It’s not as though hostility to newly arrived plant species has been a great American tradition.1 In California, the eucalyptus was once universally cherished for its graceful and colorful appearance in a land often devoid of trees — indeed, during the 1870s, it was planted by the hundreds of thousands. A century ago, the tamarisk was promoted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an ideal means to prevent soil erosion in the Southwest. Even kudzu was once hailed as the “Lord’s indulgent gift to Georgians”: government nurseries grew millions of seedlings and distributed them to farmers as a restorative for depleted soil.
1 Overseas, it was another matter, notably in Hitler’s Germany. Nazism’s view of non-native plants was consistent with its view of non-native humans. “As with the fight against Bolshevism, in which our entire Occidental culture is at stake, so with the fight against this Mongolian invader, in which the beauty of our home forest is at stake,” wrote a team of German biologists in 1942 regarding Impatiens parviflora, a small plant native to Asia. “In advocating native plants along the Reichsautobahnen,” wrote Stephen Jay Gould, “Nazi architects of the Reich’s motor highways explicitly compared their proposed restriction to Aryan purification of the people.”Nowadays, the notion that plants and animals have a “natural” habitat, from which outsiders must be expelled, has taken firm hold in the United States — first among a cadre of biologists, then in the media, and ultimately at the highest levels of the federal government. What happened? David Theodoropoulos, a California naturalist and seed merchant and the author of Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, is blunt about what he sees as a deadly inversion of environmental priorities. “Thirty years ago,” he told me, “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?”
Retracing some recent history may help to answer his question. 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. According to Jeffrey St. Clair, a historian of environmentalism, “People like [Reagan’s interior secretary] James Watt definitely mobilized the movement, and so the corporations weren’t really able to get all that they wanted.”
By 1992, the movement had a self-appointed standard-bearer in the political arena: Senator Al Gore of Tennessee. That year he published his best-selling Earth in the Balance, in which he manfully vowed to bear the political costs of his environmental crusading:
Every time I pause to consider whether I have gone too far out on a limb, I look at the new facts that continue to pour in from around the world and conclude that I have not gone far enough. . . . The time has long since come to take more political risks — and endure more political criticism — by proposing tougher, more effective solutions and fighting hard for their enactments.
These uplifting sentiments were not always matched by actions. Critics noted Gore’s championship while in Congress of the $8 billion Clinch River breeder-reactor project, riddled with fraud and bribery. They also pointed out his legislative maneuvers on behalf of the Tellico Dam, on the Little Tennessee River, a $100 million boondoggle denounced by David Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth, as “the beginning of the end of the Endangered Species Act.” Following the 1992 election, former Gore staffers moved into key environmental posts at the EPA and elsewhere. There they would benefit would-be polluters such as Disney (which had just been fined for dumping sewage in the Florida wetlands) and food processors (irked by a 1958 ban on carcinogens, soon to be repealed under the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act).
Nevertheless, as far as the public was concerned, nature had no more stalwart defender than Gore. So when Senator Bob Graham of Florida wrote to him in June 1997 about “the growing environmental threat posed by alien (non-indigenous) invasive species,” he received an enthusiastic response. In fact, the issue was already on Gore’s mind. A few weeks earlier, he had received a letter signed by a large group of biology professors, including the eminent scholar and ant expert E. O. Wilson, warning that “a rapidly spreading invasion of exotic plants and animals not only is destroying our nation’s biological diversity but is costing the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars annually.” Among the ominous examples cited were the zebra mussel and the invasion of San Francisco Bay by a new exotic species “on the average of once every twelve weeks.”
Gore sprang into action. He reassured Graham that Clinton’s circle of scientific advisers had already established a Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel, which would “be considering the issue of invasive species and will report their recommendations at the end of the year.” The panel’s chair, he noted parenthetically, was Peter Raven.
The official White House biography of Peter Raven listed him as the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and noted that he held a professorship at Washington University in St. Louis. That description failed to convey the full reach of his power and prestige as America’s leading botanist. Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist at the University of British Columbia, describes Raven as a “total force of nature. He took a staid Midwest botanical garden and put it on steroids, turning it into the greatest institution of its kind on earth.” A former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Time magazine Hero for the Planet, chairman of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, Raven was (and is) a hugely influential figure, with a network that extends through academic, government, and corporate bureaucracies.
He originally made his name in scientific circles with a 1964 paper, “Butterflies and Plants: A Study in Coevolution,” written with Paul Ehrlich, a biologist later famous for the dire (and largely unfulfilled) predictions sketched out in his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. Like Ehrlich, Raven tended to express a gloomy view of the planet’s prospects. He regularly lamented the wholesale loss of our biodiversity, brought about by the accelerating extinction of plant and animal species. “We’re over the mark anyway in preserving the world’s sustainability,” he told me in a recent conversation. “We’ve passed the point at which we can really do that effectively.”
Raven’s panel set to work and released its report, Teaming with Life: Investing in Science to Understand and Use America’s Living Capital, in March 1998. The report took a bearish view of the ecological future, sounding an apocalyptic note on the first page:
Collectively, all human beings, including Americans, are playing a crucial role in the sixth major extinction event to occur in the course of more than three billion years of life on Earth. . . . During the history of the United States, more than 500 of its known species have been eliminated (half of these since 1980) by various causes, including destruction of habitat by human activities or invasive species.
Although the document repeatedly stressed the virtues of biodiversity, it showed little sympathy for “invasive species such as killer bees, zebra mussels, fire ants, and the Mediterranean fruit fly,” which were supposedly devastating the natural environment and posing “threats to the health of our human population.” The zebra mussel, receiving no thanks for its heroic pollution-control efforts, was singled out for obloquy, having “cost more than $5 billion just to clean out pipes clogged by extremely densely clustered populations.” (A decade later, a careful study by a team of Cornell scientists assessed zebra-mussel damage at one twentieth of that amount over fifteen years.)
Amid the gloom, however, the report identified a ray of hope: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “It is anticipated that the U.S. market for seeds of genetically modified crops will grow to $6.5 billion during the next ten years,” it noted, “and the annual production value of the plants derived from those seeds will be many times that amount.”
The Monsanto Company could not have put it better. This was not surprising, since Raven (who retired in 2010) and Monsanto were close, both geographically and financially. The Missouri Botanical Garden was located just a few miles from Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis, and it 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. In April 1996, Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro joined Raven to break ground for the Monsanto Center, a four-story structure designed to house the garden’s unique collection of botanical books and dried plants. Monsanto had contributed $2 million toward the center’s construction, and had also donated the land and $50 million for the Danforth Plant Science Center, another GMO-intensive research facility.
“Monsanto loved Raven,” a former senior executive at the company told me. “They were always showing off the Missouri Botanical Garden, bringing important visitors down to meet him, having him give tours, talks. He was definitely our showpiece.”
For his part, Raven spoke publicly about the virtues of GMOs. The company’s grand scheme was to genetically modify crops — particularly corn, soybeans, and cotton — to render them immune to the glyphosate in Roundup. This would allow farmers to spray weeds without killing the crops. Teaming with Life featured a Monsanto photograph of a flourishing bioengineered plant next to a pathetic nonengineered plant obviously about to expire. “Major companies will be, are, a major factor if we are going to win world sustainability,” Raven told an interviewer in 1999. “There is nothing I’m condemning Monsanto for.” (In his conversation with me, Raven defended his former patron even more stoutly, noting Monsanto’s many civic philanthropies and absolving the company of any ill intent: “They obviously have no interest in poisoning everybody or doing something bad.”)
I asked Raven whether his efforts to protect the natural world didn’t clash in some way with his support for something very unnatural: GMO technology. “What’s natural anymore?” he replied. “If we’re going to play God, we might as well be good at it.”
While Monsanto played God during the 1990s, the Clinton Administration had its back — a policy consistent with its corporate-friendly approach to environmental issues. When, for example, the French balked at allowing GMO corn into their country, the president, the secretary of state, the national-security adviser, and assorted U.S. senators pleaded Monsanto’s cause. (The French finally caved when Gore himself phoned the prime minister to lobby on the corporation’s behalf.)2 In addition, Washington’s revolving door whirled many Clinton Administration officials onto the Monsanto payroll, while the president’s committee of science and technology advisers included Virginia Weldon, the corporation’s senior vice president for public policy.
2 For years, Monsanto’s MON810 corn was the only GMO crop cleared for cultivation within the European Union. In May 2014, however, the French parliament reversed its earlier policy and banned the crop as a threat to the environment.The Raven panel’s recommendation to join battle with invasives got rapid traction. “The invasion of noxious weeds has created a level of destruction to America’s environment and economy that is matched only by the damage caused by floods, earthquakes, wildfire, hurricanes, and mudslides,” cried Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt when the report was released. Within a year, 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.” 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.
For all Monsanto’s talk of “life sciences,” the company’s profits, especially in those days, rode on glyphosate. According to Tao Orion’s book, Beyond the War on Invasive Species, the compound was originally invented to clean dishwashers and other appliances. Then someone noticed that it destroyed any plant it touched. By the late 1990s, Monsanto’s Roundup revenues were growing at 20 percent a year, and the compound was duly revered inside the corporation. As the former company executive put it to me: “Roundup was God at Monsanto.”
Such divine status was assured by its symbiotic relationship with Monsanto’s bioengineered corn and soybeans. The strategy worked. Farmers were planting GMO crops in ever-increasing amounts — from just over 4 million acres worldwide in 1996 to 430 million in 2013.
The results of this exotic intervention were not so positive, however, for Raven’s treasured biodiversity. The larva of the monarch butterfly, for example, feeds exclusively on milkweed, a plant that glyphosate is tremendously effective at killing: unlike other herbicides, it attacks the milkweed’s roots. As the rain of glyphosate increased, surpassing 141,000 tons on U.S. crops in 2012, the butterfly’s food supply dwindled to the vanishing point. In 1995, at the dawn of the Roundup Ready era, a billion monarchs fluttered over America’s fields; by 2014, the number had fallen to 35 million, and there was talk of declaring the butterfly an endangered species.
Raven remains optimistic about the monarch, citing Monsanto’s “very exciting” plan to foster milkweed growth in noncultivated areas. Such natural oases, however, are few and far between in the Corn Belt. Those that remain are likely to host other invasive plants, such as garlic mustard, denounced as a “serious invader from the east” by Iowa State University, which inevitably recommends “spot applications” of glyphosate as a remedy.
Meanwhile, the growth curve in glyphosate use has steepened, thanks to a practice that began in 2004. Late in the season, many farmers are now spraying the compound on crops that are not bioengineered to resist it, in order to kill them off and produce artificially early harvests.
“You can imagine the residue levels on the damn wheat,” said Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist at Washington State University. “If you buy whole-wheat bread, the glyphosate will be ground up with the whole-wheat kernel and it will be part of the flour. It’s a very high exposure. When they make white flour, the bran gets separated out and is used in the food supply in other places. That bran will have three or four times the concentration of glyphosate, because that’s where the residues are lodged. It’s insanity.”
Over the years, there have been repeated allegations that glyphosate is dangerous for humans — charges vehemently denied by Monsanto and its friends in high places. “Table salt and baby shampoo are more toxic, or as toxic, as glyphosate,” Rand Beers told 60 Minutes in 2001. Beers, George W. Bush’s assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, was defending the U.S.-funded spraying of a glyphosate-based compound on millions of acres in Colombia as part of an effort to wipe out coca plantations. Despite Beers’s dutiful denials, however, the mixture turned out to be a lot more dangerous than baby shampoo, afflicting the population with painful rashes and other ailments. It also did a fine job of wiping out the vegetables and poultry that made up the local food supply, while often failing to kill the coca plant, its intended target.
This disaster made no difference. Nor did a 1985 EPA study suggesting that glyphosate might give humans cancer, a finding that the EPA reversed in another study six years later. In 2013, a French report on the compound’s carcinogenic effect on rats was withdrawn in the face of an intense lobbying effort by the company. Through thick and thin, Monsanto stuck to its mantra: in the words of a company spokesperson, “All labeled uses of glyphosate are safe for human health and supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health databases ever compiled on an agricultural product.”
Then came a massive speed bump. This past March, seventeen scientists met in Lyon, France, under the auspices of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, to assess the carcinogenic potential of several chemicals. The group was led by Aaron Blair, an internationally renowned epidemiologist and the author of more than 450 scientific papers, who spent thirty years at the National Cancer Institute. Among the chemicals they evaluated was glyphosate.
As Blair explained to me, the group reviewed three kinds of data: lab tests on animals, epidemiological studies on humans who had been repeatedly exposed to glyphosate, and “mechanistic” analyses of the ways in which the compound could cause cancer.
The animal studies, Blair said, “found excesses of rare tumors.” Absent glyphosate exposure, the tumors “are really rare. They almost never just occur.” The studies on human beings, conducted in the United States, Canada, and Sweden, pointed to an equally grim conclusion. “They showed a link between people who used or were around glyphosate and an increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Different studies, in different places, suggested that they might go together.”
3 When asked about Blair’s report, the Monsanto spokesman reiterated that “glyphosate is not a carcinogen” and cited a 2013 EPA study that concluded, “Glyphosate does not pose a cancer risk to humans.” He also noted that the I.A.R.C., in its own words, identifies cancer hazards “even when risks are very low with known patterns of use or exposure.”According to Blair, there were good grounds to declare that glyphosate definitely causes cancer. This did not happen, he said, because “the epidemiologic data was a little noisy.” In other words, while several studies suggested a link, another study, of farmers in Iowa and North Carolina, did not. Blair pointed out that there had been a similar inconsistency in human studies of benzene, now universally acknowledged as a carcinogen. In any case, this solitary glitch in the data caused the group to list glyphosate as a probable (instead of a definite) cause of cancer.3
The reaction from Monsanto was predictably irate. GMO Answers, a P.R. website put together by the biotech-food industry, featured a host of derisive posts about the study. Sympathetic journalists went to bat on behalf of the lucrative toxin. Hugh Grant, Monsanto’s chairman and CEO, was curtly dismissive: “It’s unfortunate that junk science and this kind of mischief can create so much confusion for consumers.”
As it had on previous occasions, the company demanded a retraction of the report. When we talked, it didn’t sound as if Blair was likely to do any such thing. “Historically, the same thing happened with tobacco, the same thing happened with asbestos, the same thing happened with arsenic,” he said. “It’s not junk science.”
The French government agreed, promptly banning the sale of Roundup by garden stores in response to Blair’s report. The Colombian authorities meanwhile halted the coca-spraying program, over U.S. government protests. The program had not been a huge success, of course, given the target plant’s remarkable ability to survive the spray.
But unintentional glyphosate resistance is not confined to coca. Although Monsanto scientists had deemed such a development nearly impossible for weeds targeted by the Roundup Ready system, species subjected to prolonged exposure began to adapt and survive even as farmers were harvesting their first bioengineered crops. “It’s a disaster,” said Benbrook. “As resistant weeds spread and become more of an economic issue for more farmers, the only way they know how to react — the only way that they feel they can react — is by spraying more.” It has now become common for farmers to spray three times a season instead of once, and Benbrook estimates that the extra doses of herbicide will add up to 75,000 tons in 2015.
All of which brings us to horseweed, or mare’s tail, a plant native to North America and once highly prized for its medicinal qualities. It has hairy stems, and grows about four feet tall. A nuisance in corn and soybean fields, it has naturally been a glyphosate target. But in recent years, farmers have been encountering a new kind of mare’s tail: a superweed produced by years of glyphosate treatment. Not only does it refuse to die when drenched with four times the recommended dose but it appears to gain strength from the experience, growing up to eight feet tall, with stems thick enough, according to one farmer, to “stop a combine in its tracks.”
In other words, a very alien invasive, made right here in America.
Andrew Cockburnis the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.
"This alarming assessment leaves no doubt that this hideously dangerous pesticide should be banned in the U.S., just as it is across much of the world."
In a first-ever nationwide assessment, the Environmental Protection Agency found the pesticide atrazine harms more than 1,000 endangered plans and animals. The analysis, which was required by the Endangered Species Act, came just two months after the EPA re-approved the endocrine-disrupting pesticide for an additional 15 years.
Atrazine, which is banned in more than 35 countries worldwide, pollutes groundwater and drinking water, is linked to cancer and reproductive issues, and “can chemically castrate male frogs at extremely low concentrations, including those allowed in drinking water,” according to a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity.
“With this troubling finding, even the EPA has been forced to acknowledge the unacceptable harm caused by atrazine,” Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “It’s beyond me how it can still be approved for such widespread use across this country.”
The pesticide, which is made by Syngenta, is the second most used pesticide after glyphosate, but, according to the assessment, atrazine is harmful to 1,013 protected species including the endangered whooping crane, California red-legged frog and San Joaquin kit fox.
“Finally the EPA has been forced to acknowledge atrazine’s far-reaching harms,” Donley said. “This alarming assessment leaves no doubt that this hideously dangerous pesticide should be banned in the U.S., just as it is across much of the world.”
While the EPA made major changes to atrazine’s use restrictions in September—banning the pesticide in Hawaii, on forests, on Christmas tree farms and along roadsides—the harm done to endangered species outside the proposed ban areas was nearly 100%, according to a press release from the Center of Biological Diversity.
The Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and a coalition of public-interest groups sued the EPA last week over the EPA’s decision to re-approve atrazine for the next 15 years.
WATCH VIDEO HERE
Pesticide Free Public Parks – One Solution for Two Issues: Environmental Justice and the Climate Crisis
The use of toxic pesticides as a land management strategy on public land poses unnecessary health and environmental hazards. Land management choices should not endanger the health and well-being of our residents. Pesticides diminish the soil’s capacity to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and undermines the resiliency of canopy trees and understory vegetation. This webinar will review the health and environmental impacts of toxic pesticides, the inadequacy of regulation and look at how organic land management can help Philadelphia protect public health and the environment, meet land management goals and address the challenges of the climate crisis.
Presented by Toxic Free Philly member and ecological restorer Peg Shaw for Greenfest.
Greenfest Philly presented by Toyota Hybrids has been the Philadelphia-area's largest environmental festival for 15 years and has gone virtual in 2020.
Greenfest is full of sustainable content from September 12-27. For more info and a full schedule of events, go to https://cleanair.org/greenfest/.
Monarch Massacre: Hundreds of Monarch Butterflies Die After Aerial Mosquito Spraying in North Dakota
(Beyond Pesticides, September 2, 2020) It’s being called the Monarch Massacre—hundreds of monarch butterflies found dead after the Vector Control Department of Cass County, North Dakota aerially sprayed the county for mosquito control. This incident occurred during a moment in history that is seeing monarchs at the edge of extinction, with the number of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico having declined 53% from last year, according to a count conducted by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Mexico. This tragedy happened as the nation and the world are experiencing an insect apocalypse and severe biodiversity decline, threatening the web of life. (See Study Predicts Demise of Insects within Decades if Pesticide Dependence Continues.)
While it is critical that steps be taken by communities nationwide to protect their local ecology, the incident generated a response from Cass County that claims that the insecticides used are “the lowest toxicity products on the market for mosquito control,” and points to the “monarch migration [that] is a sporadic event that unfortunately occurred during the latest adult mosquito control application.”
The County justifies the spraying because of nuisance mosquitoes and a finding in the “surrounding communities” of mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus (WNv). In its Facebook statement, the County provides no monitoring data for WNv, does not disclose the threshold levels of insect borne disease, and fails to identify any risk to human and environmental health from its pesticide use. Instead, the agency refers to “lowest toxicity” products, claims made by chemical manufacturers but not verified by the independent scientific literature. In fact, the Vector Control Department’s website indicates that it is using the highly toxic insecticide permethrin, a synthetic pyrethroid linked to neurotoxicity and cancer. The Department states on its website:
“Cass County uses a number of synthetic pyrethroids to control adult mosquitoes. Pyrethroids are synthetic chemical insecticides that act in a similar manner to pyrethrins, which are derived from chrysanthemum flowers. Pyrethroids are widely used for controlling various organisms including head lice. Permethrin, bifenthrin, and etofenprox, are synthetic pyrethroids commonly used in mosquito control programs to kill adult mosquitoes.” (See County website.)
Clearly the Department is downplaying the toxic nature of the chemicals that it uses. As stated, the pesticides being used by the county are synthetic pyrethroids not natural chemicals “derived from chrysanthemum flowers,” known as pyrethrums. Like other communities, Cass County mosquito management relies solely on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pesticide registration, which is disputed by independent science, and its own history of past pesticide use to justify continued pesticide use—without any reference to the controversy associated with synthetic pyrethroid use captured in the scientific literature. In an effort to reduce its characterization of hazards associated with the mosquito pesticides, the Department points to its use of ultra low volume (ULV) applications to downplay concerns about public exposure. To further justify widespread and indiscriminate use of synthetic pyrethroids for mosquito control, the county website cites other widespread uses of these pesticides, including “household insect foggers; ant and other insect sprays for the home; tick and flea sprays; flea dips & sprays; collars for cats and dogs; termite treatments; agricultural and livestock products; [and] for the treatment of head and body lice.”
Beyond Pesticides has noted that exposure to synthetic pyrethoids exacerbates the very threats associated with coronavirus. In effect, the use of these chemicals and public exposure increase the risk factors associated with Covid-19. (See Beyond Pesticides webpage and factsheet.)
Context is critical to the threat that monarchs are suffering. WWF’s monarch count found that monarchs occupied seven acres this winter, down from 15 acres last year. Reports indicate that 15 acres is a minimum threshold needed to prevent a collapse of the butterfly’s migration and possible extinction.
The threat to ecosystems from widespread spraying for mosquito management made national news when over two million bees killed after aerial mosquito spraying in South Carolina in 2016. Smaller wildlife kills often go unreported in the news.
Because monarchs are under threat, mosquito spraying adds considerably to the species decline. Recent research finds that western monarch milkweed habitat contains a “ubiquity of pesticides” that are likely contributing to the decline of the iconic species. The research, published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, provides a grim snapshot of a world awash in pesticides, and raises new questions about the U.S. regulatory process that continues to allow these toxic chemicals on to the market without adequate review and oversight. (See Milkweed in Western Monarch Habitat Found to be Completely Contaminated with Pesticides)
Tell Public Officials to Stop Mosquito Spraying and Adopt a Safe, Effective Mosquito Management Plan.
For information on ecological based mosquito management, see Beyond Pesticides Safer Mosquito Management page. Also, see Public Health Mosquito Management Strategy for Decision Makers and Communities.
On July 22, the New York State Legislature passed Senate 6502 / Assembly 732-B — a bill that would ban the use of all glyphosate-based herbicides on state properties. The bill now awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature, which would make it law effective December 31, 2021. Beyond Pesticides considers this a hopeful development in the glyphosate “saga” and has urged the governor ought to sign it. Nevertheless, such piecemeal, locality-by-locality initiatives represent mere “drops” of protection in an ocean of toxic chemical pesticides to which the U.S. public is exposed. A far more effective, protective solution is the much-needed transition from chemical-intensive agriculture and other kinds of land management to organic systems that do not use toxic pesticides.
The bill — titled “An Act to amend the environmental conservation law, in relation to prohibiting the use of glyphosate on state property” — was introduced in 2019 and sponsored by New York State Assembly Member Linda B. Rosenthal (D/WF-New York) and State Senator José Serrano. It would add a new subdivision to section 12 of the state’s environmental conservation law, proscribing “any state department, agency, public benefit corporation or any pesticide applicator employed thereby as a contractor or subcontractor to apply glyphosate on state property.” More than 50,000 gallons of glyphosate-based herbicides were applied in public spaces across the entirety of the state, as reported in 2019 by Bronx.com.
Senator Serrano said of the bill, “Our parks, playgrounds and picnic areas are an oasis for New Yorkers, and have particularly become safe havens during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important that we protect the health and safety of workers, families, and pets by proactively eliminating the use of potentially harmful chemicals like glyphosate in our public spaces, and by finding safe alternatives that will not risk the health of New Yorkers and our environment.”
Assembly Member Rosenthal commented: “Weeds are unsightly, but cancer is a killer, and we should not wait for a child or anyone to become sick to take action to protect them against a serious potential risk. Parents don’t want their children exposed to dangerous, toxic chemicals when they play in state parks, and groundskeepers and farm workers should not be exposed to potentially deadly chemicals while doing their job. Prohibiting the use of glyphosate on State property makes good sense: doing so will protect the public health and environment while shielding the State from millions of dollars in potential liability associated with its use. With safer alternatives available, there is no reason the State should be using a potential carcinogen to kill weeds.”
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide RoundupTM, Monsanto’s (now Bayer’s) ubiquitous and widely used weed killer; it is very commonly used with Monsanto’s companion seeds for a variety of staple crops (e.g., soybeans, cotton, corn, canola, and others). These glyphosate-tolerant seeds are genetically engineered to be glyphosate tolerant; growers apply the herbicide and expect that it will kill weeds and not harm the crop. Roundup has been marketed as effective and safe, but, in reality, its use delivers human and ecosystem harms. Exposures to it threaten human health (including transgenerational impacts) and the health of numerous organisms. In addition, many target plants are developing resistance to the compound, making it increasingly ineffective as a weed killer, and resulting in ever-more-intensive pesticide use. Glyphosate was classified in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a probable human carcinogen.
Because children spend ample time in and on the kinds of turf that are often treated with glyphosate, and are more likely than adults to inhale, or ingest, or incur other kinds of exposures from grass and soil, Beyond Pesticides and many experts are very concerned about the use of this toxic chemical on such sites. Indeed, a study by the Center for Environmental Health found that children carry significantly higher levels of glyphosate in their bodies than do their parents.
Legislative and regulatory moves on the parts of states, counties, cities, and towns, like this bill in New York State: (1) happen in the context of, and in part because of, the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) abdication of its protective responsibility to the public; (2) are often successfully challenged on the grounds that “higher level” pre-emption supersedes local laws and regulations; and (3) tackle the problem one chemical compound in one locality at a time — an approach that Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman has called “whack-a-mole.”
In addition, federal pesticide regulations in the Trump era have intentionally been made less robust and narrower in scope, and enforcement even of those has been anemic. That said, for decades, EPA has for decades aimed to “mitigate” risks rather than exercise the principle of Precaution in rulemaking. In July 2020, Beyond Pesticides described “the folly of the federal regulatory system’s attempts to ‘mitigate’ risks of pesticide exposure through small and piecemeal rules. Given the many thousands of chemical pesticides on the market, the complexity of trying to ensure ‘relative’ safety from them (especially considering potential synergistic interactions, as well as interactions with genetic and ‘lifestyle’ factors), and the heaps of cash that fund corporate interests . . . via lobbyists and trade associations, there is one conclusion. ‘Mitigation’ of pesticide risks is a nibble around the edges of a pervasive poison problem.” All of these failings have been made worse by an administration devoted to reducing or eliminating regulation on corporate actors.
There is no guarantee that Governor Cuomo will sign Senate 6502 / Assembly 732-B into law; in early 2020, he vetoed legislation to ban chlorpyrifos, and instead issued an immediate ban on aerial application, and proposed a regulatory phase-out to ban all uses by 2021. As the chief executive official of the state, he could — In addition to signing bills that come from the Legislature — take executive action to, for example, ban use of the most dangerous pesticides. Beyond Pesticides believes that the governor is not living up to his responsibility to protect the safety and well-being of New York State residents and environment from the dangers of chemical pesticides.
Beyond Pesticides reported on a bill for a local law proposed in 2019 in New York City Council (Intro 1524) that would prohibit city agencies from applying any chemically based pesticide to any property owned or leased by the City of New York. In 2019, Bronx.com reports, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation used upward of 500 gallons of glyphosate on 28,000+ acres of parks, playgrounds, beaches, athletic fields, recreational facilities, and other sites to “control” weeds. In its January 2020 hearing before the council’s Committee on Health, the bill was ultimately “laid over by committee” — a term that can mean a bill will be taken up the next legislative day, but which also can be a euphemism for “how a bill gets killed by ignoring it.”
In covering that bill, Beyond Pesticides wrote about the context in which New York City and other localities have increasingly turned to local action: “The issue is made more urgent, for New York City and for many, many municipalities and states, because most environmental regulation below the federal level in the U.S relies heavily on the determinations of EPA. Under the Trump administration, federal environmental regulation generally, and regulation of pesticides, in particular, have been dramatically weakened; this administration and its EPA clearly advantage agrochemical and other industry interests over the health of people and ecosystems. The consequent loss of public trust in federal agencies broadly, and EPA in particular, reinforce the need for localities to step up and protect local and regional residents and environments.” Currently, the bill is being held up by the Speaker’s office.
Along with the bill banning use of glyphosate on state property, the New York State Legislature passed S.5579a / A.5169, which, when signed, will mandate that written notices and signs informing the public of pesticide use in commercial and residential settings be printed in English, Spanish, and any other locally relevant languages. Senator Serrano commented, “It’s critical that all New Yorkers are aware of any warnings regarding pesticide use and application in their neighborhoods. . . . [This bill will ensure] that every resident can be adequately informed of pesticide use in their communities and take steps to ensure the health and safety of their loved ones.”
In light of the increasing evidence of the harm glyphosate can cause, some countries have stepped up restrictions or instituted bans on use of the compound, including Italy, Germany, France, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bermuda, Fiji, Luxembourg, and Austria. A growing number of jurisdictions in some countries have taken similar actions. In the U.S., counties, towns, and cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Miami, and many others in California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Washington State, and more, have banned glyphosate applications on public lands.
Beyond Pesticides urges a federal ban on the use of glyphosate herbicides, and supports interim efforts of localities to protect their own communities — and those who work directly with these chemical — as New York State is beginning to do through this bill (S.6502 / A.732-B) that would prohibit glyphosate use on all state properties. It is unfortunate that, if signed, the law would not go into effect until the very last day of 2021, but Governor Cuomo should nevertheless immediately sign the bill into law.
The solution to the current federal “whack-a-mole” approach to mitigating the impacts of glyphosate (and all pesticide) use is a wholesale transition away from the chemical dousing of public lands, agricultural fields, and all manner of maintained turf. Organic approaches to pest and weed problems in agriculture and on other lands and landscapes (and in homes, gardens, buildings, et al.) do not involve toxic pesticides, and avoid the health and ecological damage they cause.
In addition to being genuinely protective of human health, organic management systems support biodiversity, improve soil health, sequester carbon (which helps mitigate the climate crisis), and safeguard surface- and groundwater quality. Beyond Pesticides encourages the public to contact federal, state, and local officials to demand real protection from toxic pesticides, perhaps beginning with a ban on the use of glyphosate on public lands, as New York is attempting to do. Find contact information for federal Representatives here, and for Senators here. Contact information for states and localities is typically available on state and city/town websites.
You’ve heard of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. It’s deemed a probable carcinogen, and has brought Bayer (Monsanto) to court time and time again over health harms to exposed individuals. You’ve also heard of dicamba, the drift-prone herbicide that has damaged millions of acres of crops over the last few years, for which farmers are just finally beginning to see justice.
And unfortunately, you’re about to become familiar with yet another harmful pesticide that has been quietly approved by EPA while the country is otherwise distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Isoxaflutole is here, and it’s bad.
Stuck on the treadmillIsoxaflutole, manufactured by the German agrichemical giant BASF, combines the worst of glyphosate and dicamba — it’s a weedkiller EPA itself has determined is likely to cause cancer and drift hundreds of feet from where it is applied.
The introduction of isoxaflutole is the next step in the endless cycle of destruction that is the pesticide treadmill, in which agrochemical companies market new chemical formulations, oftentimes stronger and more harmful, to combat weeds that have developed resistance to herbicides that have been used on them in the past.
An added bonus? Big Ag has found its replacement for glyphosate and dicamba, which are in hot water right now with lawsuit after lawsuit cropping up and plaintiffs actually winning in court.
One side silencedIt was likely an easy feat for BASF to slip this contentious chemical through EPA’s approval process. The agency had already indicated they would not be prioritizing public and environmental health when they announced they would be suspending enforcement of protective laws during the COVID-19 crisis, and it didn’t take long until we saw this terribly misguided policy in practice.
EPA approved isoxaflutole for use in 25 states by sidestepping the usual public input process for the decision. The herbicide’s registration was opened for public comment, but not listed in the federal register. Scientists shared that the press release EPA issued around the approval caught everyone off guard, as they were waiting for the comment period to open and never got word that it already had.
However, despite scientists being unaware the comment period was open, 54 comments were in the public register, and all of them were in praise of the Alite 27 herbicide product in which isoxaflutole is the active ingredient. Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity said:
"Clearly no one from the public health community knew about this because no one commented, yet there were all these industry comments, all these positive comments. Someone was tipped off that this docket had been opened. One side was able to comment, the other wasn't."
We’re watching you, EPAEPA did enact a few limitations in the approval of the herbicide, only allowing use in certain counties in 25 states, and barring use in Indiana and Illinois which are the two largest soybean-production states in the U.S. However, this is a chemical that should not have been approved at all, especially not in the midst of a pandemic without proper public input.
The last thing we need is another glyphosate, another dicamba, another toxic chemical that will wreak havoc on public health and farmer livelihoods. Especially right now, as we face the hardships of a global pandemic. PAN and our partners are continuing to keep a close eye on EPA’s movements in this moment.
Lawsuit Challenges TruGreen Chemical Lawn Care Company for Deceptive Safety Claims; Pesticide Applications Stopped by Some States During COVID-19 Crisis as Nonessential
(Beyond Pesticides, March 30, 2020) Last week, Beyond Pesticides sued TruGreen, the national chemical landscaping company, for misrepresenting the safety of the toxic chemicals that it uses to treat lawns. The case is Beyond Pesticides v. TruGreen (DC Superior Court, Case No. 2020CA001973B, March, 20, 2020). At the same time, the organization is urging all states to prohibit toxic chemical spraying in neighborhoods as non-essential and hazardous. Widespread exposure to lawn pesticides, which are immune system and respiratory toxicants, can elevate serious risk factors associated with COVID-19 (coronavirus).
As part of its marketing, TruGreen tells consumers that it offers environmentally friendly, sustainable lawn care services that use no chemicals that may cause cancer, allergic reactions, or other health or environmental harms. These claims, according to Beyond Pesticides’ complaint, are false and deceptive and illegal under the laws of the District of Columbia.
Advocates suggest that during the COVID-19 crisis the cessation of pesticide applications in neighborhoods across the U.S. will reduce involuntary exposure to chemicals that exacerbate respiratory and immune system illness and risk factors associated with coronavirus. Lawn care services have been determined by some states to be non-essential services and are prohibited from applying chemicals and delivering other lawn services. However, TruGreen has notified customers that it will continue to deliver services where permitted. Some companies are reporting cancellations. The litigation is intended to curtail use of hazardous pesticides long-term.
TruGreen makes several claims to consumers that, according to the lawsuit, the company knows to be false. As stated in the complaint, “TruGreen purports to offer environmentally friendly, sustainable lawn care services that use no chemicals that may cause cancer, allergic reactions, or other health or environmental harms.” Beyond Pesticides shows that these claims are false and deceptive.
Quoting from TruGreen’s information to consumers, identified as false and deceptive in the ligitation:
“We will not approve products containing known or probable human carcinogens as defined by the U.S. EPA, the National Toxicology Program, or the International Agency for Research in Cancer [IARC].”
“We do not approve products that are known skin sensitizers or that may produce allergic reactions.”
“We do not approve products known or thought likely to leach to groundwater when applied to lawns.”
In fact, TruGreen uses the weed killer glyphosate (Roundup), which is identified by IARC of the World Health Organization as probably carcinogenic. It uses a chlorophenoxy (Tri-Power) another weed killer whose label warns of “irreversible eye damage” and “allergic reactions.” Another hazardous pesticide identified in the lawsuit is triclorfon (Dylox), a neurotoxic organophosate insecticide.
As stated in the complaint, TruGreen’ s representations are intended to, and do, portray to consumers that its lawn care services are environmentally responsible and free from harmful chemicals.
“It’s time that chemical lawn care companies to stop deceiving the public and their customers with deceptive, misleading, and false information on the real hazards of the pesticide they use,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “These practices are particularly abhorrent, given the availability of organic compatible products that do not cause harm,” said Mr. Feldman.
Beyond Pesticides advocates for the adoption of organic land management, a systems approach that eliminates toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers and builds organic matter and soil biology as a means of cycling nutrients for plant health. This approach is successfully and economically used in managing lawns, parks, and playing fields across the country.
TruGreen’s false and misleading representations and omissions violate the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act (“DC CPPA”), D.C. Code§§ 28-3901, et seq. Beyond Pesticides is represented by the Richman Law Group in New York City.
A rising international force of rebel botanists armed with chalk has taken up street graffiti to highlight the names and importance of the diverse but downtrodden flora growing in the cracks of paths and walls in towns and cities across Europe.
The idea of naming wild plants wherever they go – which began in France – has gone viral, with people chalking and sharing their images on social media. More than 127,000 people have liked a photo of chalked-up tree names in a London suburb, while a video of botanist Boris Presseq of Toulouse Museum of Natural History chalking up names to highlight street flowers in the French city has had 7m views.
For more than a month, we've been sheltering in place, and you haven't heard much from us. But rest assured, we haven't stopped working....
Now more than ever, it’s important to have safe parks. Unprecedented numbers of people, of all ages, are seeking exercise, recreation, and access to natural beauty in our parks as we shelter in place to avoid spreading the Covid-19 virus. It is imperative that parks be free of toxins that can cause disease and compromise our immune systems. This means no harmful, synthetic pesticides should be applied at this time.
Our Resolution was about to be introduced on March 12, 2020, before City Council suspended it’s meetings.
The resolution urges the City of Philadelphia to immediately halt the purchase and use of any herbicides containing glyphosate and/or 2,4 D and to phase out the use of all other synthetic herbicides on all city owned and leased grounds over the next 18 months as these herbicides include known carcinogens and pose serious health risks to all those frequenting City parks, recreation centers, fields and other public spaces. It further urges the City to replace use of such herbicides with safe methods known as organic driven integrated pest management.
-We will continue to advocate for this goal and work with City Council to pass this Resolution.
-We secured a Pilot Park Program to transition two Philadelphia parks to organic land management practices in partnership with Non Toxic Neighborhoods. More details on this are forthcoming.
These are challenging times. Philadelphia residents are facing the risk of illness, food insecurity, unemployment, school closures and social isolation. At the same time, people are acting with great compassion. Still, the widespread use of harmful, synthetic pesticide use continues to be a public health crisis with long term ramifications, and we will continue to press for positive change.
The Black Institute Shows Higher Pesticide Use in Low-Income Neighborhoods in New York City, Calls for Pesticide Ban in Parks
Toxic pesticide use in New York City (NYC) parks would get the boot if a bill — Intro 1524 — being considered by the New York City Council passes. The bill “would ban all city agencies from spraying highly toxic pesticides, such as glyphosate (Roundup), and be the most far-reaching legislation to implement pesticide-free land practices in New York City parks,” according to a press release from its sponsors, New York City Council members Ben Kallos and Carlina Rivera. The January 29 hearing on the bill in the council’s Committee on Health was preceded by release of an important report from The Black Institute: Poison Parks, which calls out the NYC Parks Department for, in particular, its continued use of glyphosate-based herbicides. It also notes, “Minority and low-income communities suffer from the use of this chemical and have become victims of environmental racism.”
NYC Council members Kallos and Rivera point out, in their joint press release, that glyphosate is the pesticide most intensively used by city agencies, and that, “The use of this pesticide poses a health risk for anyone who frequents city parks and playgrounds, as well as, city workers, including city parks employees who come into contact with glyphosate containing chemicals while spraying.” Council member Rivera said: “Our parks and open spaces are critical to our health when our communities have so few of them, so we have to make sure our city is pushing toward making them safer, greener, and more resilient. But no New Yorker should ever have to be exposed to toxic pesticides and it is long past time that our city ban these dangerous chemicals.” Member Kallos added, “Parks should be for playing, not pesticides. All families should be able to enjoy our city parks without having to worry that they are being exposed to toxic pesticides that could give them and their families cancer.”
The Poison Parks report puts its advocacy of nonchemical management of public land in an environmental justice, as well as a public health, context. It defines environmental racism as racial discrimination in: environmental policy-making; the enforcement of regulation and laws; the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries; the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in communities of color; and the history of excluding people of color from mainstream environmental groups, decision-making boards, commission[s], and regulatory bodies. It also says that the Environmental Justice movement “has failed to address large-scale environmental practices, funded by big business, [that] disproportionately affect communities of color.”
The report includes data and maps that demonstrate the impacts of such environmental racism, including this from 2017–2018: “In Manhattan, Harlem was disproportionately sprayed in comparison with the rest of Manhattan. When analyzing this data, only locations that included parks, playgrounds, or recreation centers on park land were considered. Of the fifty parks or playgrounds sprayed in Manhattan in 2018, only 8 locations were not in Harlem. Forty-two locations were in Harlem where about 62% of the population is Black or Brown.” (Manhattan boasts more than 100 city parks.)
The Black Institute President Bertha Lewis said, in comments to the New York Daily News, “We understand the movement about climate and pollution going on. Too many times, the effect on black people and brown people and people of color is an afterthought.” The Bronx Chronicle also quotes Ms. Lewis: “Millions of New Yorkers rely on our public parks. Children, seniors, working people, immigrants, and their pets use them every day, but most don’t know the weed killer Roundup™ used in our parks is literally poisoning them. As our report shows, the neighborhoods affected are black and brown communities, such as Idlewild Park in Queens, where 90% of the residents are black. Average New Yorkers can’t just go to a park upstate or [on] Long Island to enjoy the outdoors. Public parks are the backyard for most New York City residents. We have banned plastic bags, we have banned trucks idling, and we have banned Styrofoam™. It is high time we ban the weed killer Roundup™.”
In the Executive Summary, the report cites the long-standing use of Roundup (made by Monsanto, now owned by Bayer AG) by the New York City Parks Department, and says, “Glyphosate is slowly poisoning state and city employees, children, the elderly, and pets,” adding that city employees who apply the herbicide are at the greatest risk of harm because of their consistent exposure. The report further decries NYC agencies’ argument that glyphosate herbicides such as Roundup cause no harm because they are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Poison Parks correctly notes that EPA permits toxic pesticides to remain registered (allowed for use) and on the market for years and years because its protocol is to review registrations only every 15 years. Roundup has been on the market since 1974. Its effects had “not been studied since 1993,” according to Poison Parks, which also says that in a 2018 review, EPA repeatedly found “something biased or inadequate in each case reporting a positive correlation between non-Hodgkin lymphoma and exposure to glyphosate. At the same time, any report with findings supporting that glyphosate does not cause cancer faced far less scrutiny.”
The report advocates for laws — “below” the federal level, given the state of EPA — that ban the use of glyphosate: “There are safe and healthy methods of reducing weeds without the use of toxic chemicals that threaten [New York] City’s most vulnerable. . . . Parks and recreation areas are timeless community magnets. They provide a place of relaxation and connection to others: a place for children to play, our pets to be free, and opportunity to escape the grind of city life, and need to be protected.” Poison Parks calls on New York City to:
The issue is made more urgent, for New York City and for many, many municipalities and states, because most environmental regulation below the federal level in the U.S relies heavily on the determinations of EPA. Under the Trump administration, federal environmental regulation generally, and regulation of pesticides, in particular, have been dramatically weakened; this administration and its EPA clearly advantage agrochemical and other industry interests over the health of people and ecosystems. The consequent loss of public trust in federal agencies broadly, and EPA in particular, reinforce the need for localities to step up and protect local and regional residents and environments.
The bill, which was first proposed in 2015 after Member Kallos heard from students at NYC Public School 290 about their worries about the toxicity and health impacts of pesticides on people and animals, would also establish a 75-foot protective buffer between any natural body of water and permitted pesticide use. On January 29, bill sponsors Kallos and Rivera, and 34 NYC Council colleagues sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, requesting that he put a moratorium on the use of toxic pesticides “until policies and procedures can be codified by the City Council and relevant agencies.”
Mr. Feldman’s comments at the Committee on Health hearing included: “With glyphosate being the poster child for unacceptable, hazardous pesticide use around our children and families, this legislation is critically needed to protect the residents and the environment of New York City, and advance the adoption of organic land management practices in parks and playing fields. . . . The approach to land care specified by this legislation identifies an allowed substance list to ensure that the products and practices used are compatible with the organic systems that protect people and local ecology. It is this approach to pesticide reform that will effectively stop the unnecessary use of hazardous pesticides applied in parks and public spaces throughout the city. While addressing urgent local concerns related to public and worker health and the environment, passage of this law in New York City will make an important contribution to reversing the escalating crises in biodiversity, including pollinator declines, and the climate crisis — which are exacerbated by petroleum-based, synthetic pesticides, the release of carbon into the environment, and the lost opportunity to sequester carbon in organic soil systems.”