Is that Poison on Your Lawn?: Making the Case for Going Pesticide-Free
“For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”
--Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring
When I was growing up, during the spring, summer, early autumn, my dad mowed the yard at least twice a week. To make it appear, I remember thinking as if the grass didn’t grow – a defiance of nature. He trimmed the hedges into perfect squares, the flowers forced into perfect rows, giving our yard rigid order. Everything living – plant, bush, blade of grass – was controlled and manipulated, forced to adhere to a rigid set of imaginary rules. Even though no one else on our street mowed as obsessively, everyone else’s yard was some version of the same. That’s the way it was: yards were manufactured. Nature was something you went off to the woods to see, somewhere off in the distance. Yards, like many things in life, were something to exert control over.
A few decades later, we all have access to a lot more chemicals that promise landscape utopia: a life without bugs or blemishes; a home with pest-free gardens and lawns. No more ants, fleas, aphids, bees, wasps, garden spiders, butterflies or moths to battle. There’s a spray or powder to get rid of all of them. Nuisance aspects of nature are banished, and in their place come flowers, fruits and vegetables of every conceivable color and variety — as long as one has the right chemical. Grasses can grow thick with the right genetic modification. But are pesticides smart or even safe? What are the consequences for our children? Our pets? The environment?
Delving deeply into the attributes of specific pesticides is beyond the scope of an article. Hundreds of chemicals used all over the world in the agribusiness, landscaping and gardening industries, and the science, for certain chemicals, is all over the map. Some studies reveal that certain chemicals are problematic if not outright dangerous, some chemicals perhaps less so. More frighteningly, some chemicals that are widely used in the pesticide industry are -- well, we just don’t know. Pesticide use, to be sure, is a complex issue, especially when it comes to feeding people in this overpopulated world. Indeed, entire books have been devoted to the dangers of a single chemical (like DDT). But when it comes to personal gardening and landscaping, there’s another scary fact: suburban lawns and gardens use more chemicals per acre than industrialized agriculture.
As U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that, “by their very nature, pesticides create some risks to humans, animals, or the environment because they are designed to kill or adversely affect living organisms.” That’s an ominous statement, and it doesn’t jibe with those cheery herbicide commercials promising lush grass, fecund fruit trees, or perfect backyard gardens. There are 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, according to the Washington, D.C.-based anti-pesticide advocacy group Beyond Pesticides. Thirteen of them are ‘probable’ or ‘possible’ carcinogens; 14 are linked to birth defects; 18 to reproductive effects such as infertility or reduced sperm count; 20 of them are linked to liver or kidney damage; 18 can cause neurotoxicity and/or peripheral nervous system damage; and 11 are suspected endocrine disrupters.
Children and pets are especially susceptible to the dangers of pesticides. Exposure to herbicides before the age of 1 is linked to a fourfold increase in asthma.Young children are also six times more likely to develop leukemia in a household using pesticides (Remember: as far as humans go, children are always the most vulnerable to the dangers of toxic chemicals).
Pets are at great risk, too — perhaps even more so because they may directly ingest lawn and garden chemicals. Dogs and cats use their noses to explore the landscape, directly exposing themselves to chemicals. Outside cats, who roam larger territories, risk greater exposure because of this, while cats generally are also more susceptible to poisons because of their personal grooming habits (licking). Cats and dogs may also eat other animals that have been contaminated by pesticides. Regardless of the various ways they are exposed to pesticides, the toxic poisons can (and do) accumulate in their bodies. Even very commonly used pesticides, like snail bait, are extremely poisonous to dogs and cats (and other mammals).
If you’re wondering if there’s a silver lining, or whether we should all just throw up our hands and resign ourselves to hideous backyards overrun with weeds and an overabundance of bugs, rejoice! We can enjoy beautiful backyards and abundant gardens. It’s easier and cheaper than you might think — not to mention friendlier to the environment. It starts with the novel idea that humans can live with and alongside the natural world without attempting to conquer and destroy it. (Who would have thought?)
If you’re like my father, and grass is your thing, it’s a matter of doing the right thing rather than spraying the wrong one. In fact, pesticides, overall, throw everything out of whack. When proper irrigation, soil aeration and pH balance is achieved, when soil compaction is avoided, your lawn will thrive naturally. Mowing height is important, also — too short and it’s destroying your lawn.
Weeds can actually tell us what we’re doing wrong: blue violets, for instance, indicate soil compaction and/or excessive watering. It’s also worth noting — and knowing — that some plants that are considered weeds have beneficial qualities. Take, for example, clover: it thrives in imperfect soil, but it also takes nitrogen from the atmosphere and delivers it to grass — which in turn helps it grow. Crabgrass is an excellent erosion controller and dandelions, with their deep roots, return nutrients to the surface of the soil. Plus, if you keep your yard pesticide-free (and keep your dog from peeing all over it), dandelion leaves make for a delicious salad!
Using native plants in your landscape is beneficial too — both in terms of lawn maintenance and providing a healthy habitat for beneficial soil organisms, insects and earthworms. Native plants require less maintenance, are more resistant to disease and drought, and serve as natural deterrents for many common pests; an added bonus is that they add natural beauty to your yard. Best of all? They’re great for the environment and require no synthetic poisons to keep them vibrant.
Don’t forget: fill your yard and garden with lots of colorful flowers, and you’ll be doing our struggling honeybee population a favor. These bees, which are pollinators and essential to a healthy planet, are attracted to colorful flowers. The more varieties, the better. It’s also great to plant flowers that bloom at different times of the year, so bees are attracted to your lawns and gardens year-wide.
Living in Community
As animal advocates no doubt already know, it’s not easy convincing the neighbors to do the right thing — in this case, abandoning pesticides. But we must convince them in an effort to create not only a healthier community, but a healthier world. After all, no one loses, suffers or gets sick by abandoning scary chemicals. Together, we all stand to gain from a refusal to use pesticides.
When talking to neighbors, emphasize the benefits to humans (and, of course pets!). Threats to wildlife and the environment can seem too obtuse and are less likely to inspire change — although those issues are equally valid. Lead by example: Talk about the wonderful changes you’ve made in your yard, and the wonderful results. Mention all the money you save by abandoning pesticide use. Give them factsheets. Beyond Pesticides has wonderful resources and factsheets that can be printed from their website, free of charge. Visit www.beyondpesticides.org. Always be supportive and strive not to condescend—the death knell for inspiring change.
Most important of all? Continue to educate yourself about the wonderful benefits of organic, pesticide free gardens and lawns; in other words, learn how to do it and put it into practice. Create the model yard and garden, if that’s your thing. Transform your lawn into a pesticide-free paradise. To get you started, in addition to checking out Beyond Pesticide’s informative website, you might find the following books and websites helpful.:
http://veganorganic.net/: “Vegan-organics is any system of cultivation that avoids artificial chemicals and sprays, livestock manures and animal remains from slaughter houses. Alternatively, fertility is maintained by vegetable compost, green manures, crop rotation, mulches, and any other method that is sustainable, ecologically viable and not dependent upon animal exploitation. This will ensure long term fertility, and wholesome food for this and future generations.”
Veganic Gardening, the Alternative System for Healthier Crops (book)
http://www.goveganic.net/: “The Veganic Agriculture Network is a new movement in North America to promote the production of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and cereals without the use of artificial substances nor the use of animal products. We promote sustainable, low-impact, plant-based farming and gardening.”
National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, Urban Pest Management, 1980. US EPA officials currently acknowledge this phenomenon in interviews.