Life Gardens

Saturday 23 June 2018

Time to abandon noxious chemical war on weeds

Lay of the land

The war we have long waged on weeds adversely affects insects and wildlife
The war we have long waged on weeds adversely affects insects and wildlife

Fiona O'Connell

White signs are dotted along the riverbank in this country town this summer. 'Managed for wildlife' they read, above a drawing of a bumblebee getting stuck into a pink-headed thistle.

It's a welcome antidote to the scary looking outfits, like something out of science fiction, worn by folk spraying weedkiller outside supermarkets, schools and along country roads.

Such pesticides keep golf courses as pristine and lifeless as the lawns of the McMansions that seem to be sprouting up everywhere, turning once fertile fields and magical meadows into sad still-lifes of suburban sameness - bereft of birds and bees.

I can't remember the last time I saw a ladybird.

For the war we have long waged on weeds adversely affects insects and wildlife. As Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, put it, the "mindset that advocated chemicals as weapons on farms, pastures and forests set the course of war in Vietnam. Chemicals - herbicides contaminated with dioxin as well as napalm - were our weapons of mass destruction".

Indeed, two days before her book came out, President Kennedy signed his approval for the so-called "rainbow herbicides" (Agents Orange, White Purple, Green, Pink and Blue, named for the coloured bands on the herbicide barrels) to be sprayed on Vietnamese crops.

Operation Ranch Hand increased significantly under Lyndon Johnson - the intensive environmental abuse giving rise to the term 'ecocide'.

As Carson anticipated, the powerful agrichemical industry went on the attack even before her book was published. Nevertheless, Silent Spring resulted in sweeping environmental change. The US herbicide programme ended in 1971, when Nixon's administration was forced to disclose covered-up research data about one of the herbicides in Agent Orange. Not before 40pc of coastal mangrove forests, inestimable marine nurseries, and more than five-million acres of upland forests and agricultural lands were destroyed.

Is it a chilling coincidence that one of the biggest producers of Agent Orange - Monsanto Chemical Co - produces Roundup, the most popular weedkillers in the world today?

Many farmers who rely on Roundup to control weeds are furious that it may soon be banned in the EU because of fears surrounding a key ingredient - glyphosate - which in 2015 the World Health Organisation's cancer agency said it believed it "probably" caused cancer in humans. This was disputed last year by a committee known as the RAC, which agreed to restrict warnings to the current advice that Roundup can cause "serious eye damage" and is "toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects."

Leaving me wondering why those riverbank signs are painted white, the symbolic colour of surrender. And how easy the living really is for the fish jumping beneath them this summertime.

Sunday Independent

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