Derek – Friday 19th March

We don’t use herbicides or pesticides in the community garden. Diseased plants, we prune if possible and suffer a few losses. Artificial chemicals kill off more than the pests that they target, and our aim is to encourage wildlife, not destroy it.

A class of pesticides frequently in the news is neonicotinoids. Neonics, the family friendly term, are used as a coating for agricultural seeds and for pot plants. The big row is over bees and other pollinators in crops such as sugar beet. The Wildlife Trusts and FoE say neonics kill these beneficial insects, leak into water courses and stay in the soil for far too long. The NFU and British Sugar say they are essential pesticides; their crops would be wiped out without them.

It’s an old story. Environmentalists complain, agri-business hits back.

We have lost 50% of insects since the 1970s, and there can be little doubt that such pesticides are a major cause. Regular use can lead to resistance by pests and is then counter productive. So we spray even more, which leads to increased residues in our food. How harmful these residues are is the uncomfortable debate.

Glyphosate (commercial names: Roundup and Weedol) is extensively used in agriculture for weed control and by home gardeners. A World Health Organisation study said it was ‘probably’ carcinogenic, but the European Food Safety Agency says it is unlikely to cause cancer in humans. Another of the who-do-you-believe conundrums. It is thought those most likely to be harmed by glyphosate are those spraying it and those living nearby. Many Councils, including our own, use glyphosate to clear weeds from streets.

In 1962 Rachel Carson published *Silent Spring*, her pioneering study of the effect of overuse of pesticides in the US. Fields at the time were routinely sprayed with organophosphorus chemicals and DDT. Her book detailed the harm they were doing to wildlife and people. The title is a reference to the lack of bird life on the vast sprayed fields. The chemical industry in the shape of such giants as DuPont hit back. She isn’t qualified, they cried, she’s a Commie (she wasn’t), she’s hysterical. Academics, though, defended her, and the nascent ecology groups were gratified to have such a champion. She is often regarded as a prescient forerunner of the environmental movement.

I worked for Barnet Parks in the early 70s where they regularly sprayed the bowling greens with a mercury compound. The aim was to get rid of a fungus called fusarium which is especially harmful to short grass. I always figured it attacked the bowlers too, as they picked up a bowl that had recently rolled the length of the green. These chemicals are banned now, but I wondered how many bowlers were killed off prematurely, along with the fusarium. And what was obvious to me must have been obvious to the chemical manufacturers, but if it was left to them, mercury, I suspect, would still be used.

I am always shocked, I shouldn’t be by now, at how polluting industries suck in scientists and medical experts to buttress their claims of unalloyed beneficence. Examples are myriad, from tobacco, fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and agri-chemical manufacturers. Be wary of the white coated advocate. Ask them, who is paying you and how much. Then judge the partiality of their research.

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