At one time garden chemicals were championed as the panacea for agricultural shortages and deficits. Pesticides, it was said, were the technological answer to dealing with insects, weeds and other intruders that nature sent the farmer’s way. Herbicides increased yields by decreasing weeds. And chemicals kept soils fertile, making for more vigorous, more productive crops. Over time, we’ve learned that these claims are exaggerated if not completely false.
But these synthetic products have a downside, one that threatens the environment and the very future of food production. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides poison our waters, our soils, other living creatures and our own bodies. Their effectiveness, touted by big budget, corporate-driven marketing plans, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In light of these trade-offs, and the fact that healthy and potentially more effective organic alternatives exist, why should we risk our soils, our water and the health of our children?
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It’s argued that agricultural chemicals are needed if we’re to supply the world’s exploding population with food. But it’s a false argument, one that ignores the fact that the world already grows more than enough food to feed its billions (see Frances Moore Lappe’s World Hunger: 12 Myths and Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity for a discussion of global food-distribution problems and solutions). Eliminating synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to the greatest degree possible and replacing them with practical and effective organic methods will not only benefit the current generation but generations to come. While the billions of tons of chemicals applied to the earth largely serve commercial agriculture, eliminating chemicals from our own lawns and gardens can also make a difference, directly benefiting our families and communities.
While most modern herbicides are designed to kill only plants and have little or no toxicity to humans, many still have extreme consequences in the environment, changing habitats in ways that affect insects and wildlife. These consequences extend to water courses where they may kill beneficial aquatic plants and fish.
Some herbicides continue to be toxic to animals and plants. One study showed dogs who play in herbicide-treated yards have three-times the risk of cancer. A Swedish study linked herbicides with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer in humans.
Paraquat, one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, is so toxic it’s frequently used in third-world countries as a means of suicide. Large, unintentional exposure to paraquat almost always leads to death. Smaller exposures, usually through inhalation, have been linked to lung damage, heart and kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease and eye damage. Controversy exists around the use of herbicides more commonly used by home gardeners, such as, 2,4-D and Roundup (see Is Roundup Killing Our Soil?). A manufacturer supported review of studies found Roundup safe for use around humans while anti-herbicide groups cite studies that find it affecting human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cells in vitro as well as testosterone development in mice. There was an outcry in 2003 when the Environmental Protection Agency decided not to limit the sale of the weed-killer atrazine amid charges that the chemical industry had undue influence in the decision. The EPA’s own research had shown that atrazine was toxic to some water-borne species in extremely low parts-per-billion. (A few years ago France ordered the withdrawal of atrazine and related weedkillers, saying the chemicals were building up in water supplies and threatening human health.)
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The overuse of chemical or inorganic fertilizers has serious consequences including the leaching of nitrates into the groundwater supply and the introduction of certain contaminants, including cadmium, into the soils. Fertilizer runoff into ponds, lakes and streams over stimulates algae growth, suffocating other aquatic plants, invertebrates and fish. Toxic fertilizers made from industrial waste can bring mercury, lead and arsenic to our soil and water supplies. The last few years have seen efforts to control both nitrogen applications and the use of toxic fertilizers in the U.S. and other western nations.
Tip: Slow release, organic lawn fertilizer benefits your soil while providing nutrients for your grass. Not only does it improve soil structure, it encourages beneficial soil microbes that attack pests and diseases.
By far, the most damage to the environment and the biggest threat to our health comes from pesticides. It is becoming harder and harder to justify their widespread use. We now know that pesticides aren’t as effective as claimed and that they cause more harm than good. And the pests they’re reputed to eliminate? Maybe they aren’t so bad after all, especially if they are managed intelligently.
Farmers often accept that using synthetic fertilizers creates a trade-off — high yields of plants with a lot more insect problems. The same companies that manufacture fertilizers have an answer: buy their pesticides and their seeds that are genetically engineered to withstand the pesticides.
Pesticides tend to create a vicious circle. The more they are used, the more they are needed. While the costs of pesticides increases, their effectiveness is decreasing — meaning that more and more chemicals are needed to get the job done. As pesticides get more toxic, they are also getting less effective at reducing the pest problem. Could the problem be with the pesticides, not the pests?
Recently Ontario, Canada banned lawn and garden pesticides for home use. There is a similar ban in Quebec. As more comes to light about the dangers of pesticides, the more people are realizing that they just don’t have a place in our world.
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Tip: Using toxic pesticides upsets your garden’s natural balance, harming beneficial insects as well as pests. At Planet Natural, all of our natural garden pest solutions are safe for you, your family and the environment. And they’re effective.
Secondary Pest Problems
Pesticides do not discriminate; they kill all insects in their path. This means the beneficial insects, such as the ones that prey on harmful insects, are killed right along with the ones you aim to get rid of. Pollinators also fall victim to pesticides.
When every original insect is gone, the habitat is wide open for infiltration by other insects. This new, blank-slate habitat has no predators so the secondary insect population explodes and you wind up with a bigger insect issue than in the first place. Now you need more and stronger pesticides.
Note: Less than 1% of the insects in the world are considered pests. The other 99% play an integral role in the ecosystem.
Pesticides are great for one thing: they aid pests in developing resistance and create stronger bugs. Every time a field or garden is sprayed a few insects who are stronger and more genetically advanced are likely to survive. These survivors mate and create offspring which are more resistant to the pesticide. Because the lifecycle of an insect is so short, and each generation is more resistant than the last, it doesn’t take long for a super bug to develop. The only recourse is to create a stronger and more toxic pesticide.
There are many insects around today that are resistant to any insecticide. We’ve created monsters we can’t kill.
When it comes down to it, pesticide use is very expensive. There are the original costs of buying the poison and sprayer, plus all the protective gear you need to wear when using it (Farmers spend $2.4 billion each year on insecticides and fungicides; see “Are Pests the Problem — or Pesticides?“).
There are other costs, as well. A new load of pesticides has to be trucked in for the secondary pest outbreaks and there is a loss in revenue when the pesticides stop working. We all pay for the government to regulate pesticides and for the legal battles over safety and the environment. The manufacture of these chemicals requires vast quantities of fossil fuels at a time when those costs are at a premium.
Pesticides don’t stay where they are put. They soak into the soil, contaminate groundwater and surface streams and drift through the air. The pesticides you use in your garden can end up in lakes and ponds, in your neighbor’s yard and in your house. Many agricultural pesticides are proven neurotoxins as well as likely endocrine disruptors and carcinogens.
No one can forget the result of DDT, which is still used in India, North Korea and a few other countries for malaria control. The widespread agricultural use of DDT threatened many birds, including the bald eagle, with extinction. It is highly toxic to fish and shellfish. Mammals were also adversely affected. Cats were especially affected by DDT and its use often resulted in explosions of rodent populations where it was applied because of decimated predator numbers. In humans, DDT is suspected of causing many cancers, especially breast cancer, and adversely affects reproduction. Though not acutely toxic (its slow-building affects accumulate over the years; it is classified as having “chronic toxicity”), DDT persists and accumulates in the environment, collecting in human tissue until it reaches damaging levels. Even its effectiveness against mosquitoes has diminished as the insects have gradually developed resistance to the chemical. Yet its toxicity to humans lives on. A 2002 study in the U.S. found at least half its subjects still had detectable levels of DDT. The U.S. ban on DDT in 1972 is largely credited in saving the bald eagle.
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DDT isn’t the only pesticide that causes great damage to the ecosystem. Continued pesticide use results in groundwater contamination, death and poisoning of domestic pets and livestock, loss of honeybees and other pollinators, deformed frogs, bird death and fishery losses are all at least partially the result of pesticide use.
In California, the pesticides carbofuran (used on alfalfa, grapes and rice) and diazinon are responsible for the majority of bird kills, affecting many species of songbirds, waterfowl and raptors. Controlled studies have shown that when carbofuran is applied to crops, as many as 17 birds die for every five acres treated.
Pesticides, along with fertilizers, also produce dead zones in estuaries and bays, areas starved of oxygen and depleted of marine life.
Human Health Costs
It’s not just the non-human realm that is feeling the brunt of pesticide use. Consider the legacy of DDT. It wasn’t until 2001 that the link between DDT and premature births and low birth weights in humans born in the 1950s and ’60s was discovered. The low amounts of DDT used for malaria control have been shown to cause miscarriage and premature birth, reduced sperm counts, inability to breastfeed and increases in infant deaths.
Post-DDT pesticides continue to be suspect in everything from cancer to mental retardation. Recently, an Australian toxicologist reported in the journal Science of the Total Environment that pesticides may be responsible for some of the intellectual development problems in children that were previously associated with lead.
Studies have found a link between pesticides and Parkinson’s Disease, autism and child cancers, neuroblastoma, leukemia, chronic infections, bronchitis, asthma, sinusitis, infertility, neurological disorders, aggression and depression (see “The Chlordane Pesticide Problem“).
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Clearly there are a lot of problems with the use of pesticides, herbicides and inorganic fertilizers, but is there a solution? Yes, go organic! The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that U.S. farmers’ reliance on synthetic fertilizers and insecticides may be based on an outdated understanding of plant chemistry, and that organic gardening methods can be validated by hard science.
Scientists found that corn borer moths laid 18 times as many eggs in corn grown in conventional (fertilizer and pesticide-rich) soil as corn grown in organic soil. It appears that the corn grown with large doses of nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements found in synthetic fertilizers produced more sugar and amino acids — which the insects preferred.
Growing organically, doesn’t just mean not using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, it means creating a healthy environment where plants can grow strong and harmful insects and weeds are balanced with beneficial insects and desirable plants.
To create a healthy ecosystem within the garden or farm, start with healthy soil. Improving garden soil by adding organic matter (such as compost), balancing the soil pH and using organic fertilizers when needed. Then rotate your crops annually. Make sure your plants get the right amount of water and sunlight and grow what’s best adapted to your region.
Consider the Better Pest Management and Integrated Pest Management systems, techniques that look past short term gains (which are often followed by quick losses) to take in the long-term picture for environmental and human health.
It might seem counterintuitive at first, but attracting or releasing certain insects into the garden can actually help control other insects. Beneficial insects prey on some harmful garden pests, reducing their population numbers. Predators, parasites and pollinators can all increase the health of your garden.
Eric Vinje founded Planet Natural with his father Wayne in 1991, originally running it as a grasshopper bait mail-order business out of a garage.
Eric is now retired, but is still a renowned gardener known for his expertise in composting, organic gardening and pest control, utilizing pesticide-free options, such as beneficial insects.
Eric believes when you do something good for the environment, the effects will benefit generations to come.
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3 Responses to “Lawn and Garden Chemicals”
Horticulturally speaking, just because something is natural doesn’t make it right either. You don’t go around just picking up dandelions, ghost peppers, oleanders, nightshades, tomato leaves using them in recipes if you really don’t know what you’re doing
How and when should I treat Malus trees for Apple Scab?
Amazing article! This really opened my eyes to the harmful effects of pesticides and others!