Posts Tagged ‘pesticides’


Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

I have many plants in my garden that are very popular with bees and other pollinators. Pictured above is a favorite, the perennial Lemon Queen Sunflower (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’), which blooms profusely in late summer.

I reserved one corner of the garden for a few plants that can be a bit unruly, but are beloved by pollinators. I call it Bee Corner. There are an assortment of monarda varieties. Monardas can be a bit rambling, and it is welcome to spread out at will here. There’s also some agastache ‘Black Adder’, which did very well this summer.


Bee Corner in September

New to the corner are wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) and hairy mountain mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum). They’re both North American natives that attract pollinators and have settled in well. Next year, they can take engage in a turf war with the monardas.


Wild Quinine

All comers can feast without fear of poisoning. I never use pesticides of any kind on my plants. The plants are all strictly on their own, thrive or die, and mostly, they thrive.

Lately, Colony Collapse Disorder has been in the news, and the rise in the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and fungicides is suspected as a contributing cause. The jury is still out on the exact causes of honey bee die-offs and because of their economic importance, honey bees are getting a lot of attention. One thing is for certain though. It’s not just honey bees that are affected by rampant pesticide use.


Clearwing Hummingbird Moth at Monarda

As Bridget Stutchbury points out in Silence of the Songbirds, the banning of DDT didn’t end the threat of pesticides to species such as birds:

We are as hooked on pesticides today as we were in the 1960s, when, in her seminal book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson warned us of the rain of poison that was bringing death to our waters and killing thousands of birds…. In many ways, birds are in greater danger today than in the 1950s because modern pesticides are more lethal. Older OC pesticides (organochlorines, fat soluble pesticides that can be stored in the fatty tissues of animals) were replaced in the 1970s and 1980s by “safer” pesticides like organophosphates and carbamates. These pesticides are safer because they break down within a few days and are not stored in the body, and so do not accumulate in the food chain. But many, like monocrotophos, are vastly more toxic to birds (and people) than were the OC pesticides. Modern insecticides are designed to kill their target swiftly and then break down before “non-target” animals come into contact with the poison. This is easier said than done. Birds can be exposed to these insecticides via direct contact with sprayed plants, by eating insects and fruits in areas that have been recently sprayed, or by eating pesticides that are applied to the ground in the form of granules….We have traded persistence for toxicity.


Hairy Mountain Mint

Many insecticides are lethal to birds because they are neurotoxins and interfere with the nerve impulses inside the bodies of animals. They disrupt the signal that must jump from neuron to neuron via chemical messengers, causing severe shaking, then paralysis and asphyxiation. Pesticides that are effective in killing insects are also very toxic to birds and other animals, including humans.


Agastache ‘Black Adder’

You can help reduce the use of agricultural pesticides by buying organic foods. You may feel that buying organic items such as bananas is not worthwhile because you peel the bananas anyway. But by buying organic bananas you support the reduction of the pesticide burden where the bananas were grown. You can also step more lightly on the land by buying other earth-friendly products such as shade-grown coffee. For more on threats to birds and ways you can make a difference, Silence of the Songbirds is a great read.


Bee Corner in August

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Because it’s tomato season, I’m including this book review at Willow House as well as at Willow Books, where it also appears. It’s a very interesting read, well worth checking out!

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011.

As someone who has purchased winter tomatoes here in the snowy north just for the sake of a little colour on the plate, I was interested in learning where those tasteless orbs come from and at what cost. The answer for many tomatoes is that they come from Florida, Estabrook’s Tomatoland, and the cost to workers and the environment is considerable. Tomatoland is a thorough exploration of the tomato business, written in a clear and well-organized manner that covers pretty much every aspect of the topic imaginable. I especially enjoyed the many portraits Estabrook offers of the people he interviews, everyone from farm owners to field workers to university researchers. They really bring the narrative to life.

Estabrook first looks at the tomato itself and offers a little bit of history about this favorite fruit. You would think that there is plenty of variety available in heirloom tomatoes, big ones and small ones, orange ones and green striped ones, but when it comes right down to it, these plants are all closely related and represent less than 5 per cent of the genes of wild tomato species. Those genes that could be used to improve cultivated tomatoes are being lost through the ever-expanding habitat loss and degradation that lead to species extinction.

Tomatoes are not a crop well-suited to the sandy soil and humid environment of Florida. What makes Florida a tomato centre is its proximity to the population centres of the eastern seaboard where an out-of-season winter tomato is welcomed with open wallet. It was in 1880 that Joel Hendrix first shipped green tomatoes to New York City and led the way for the development of the Florida tomato industry.

To produce tomatoes in an inhospitable environment, the soil is first treated with methyl bromide to kill nematodes. Methyl bromide is a potent poison and its use contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer, and its use was supposed to have been phased out. However, Florida growers have been granted a ‘critical use exemption’. Its alternative, methyl iodide, is a carcinogenic known to be one of the most toxic compounds employed in chemical manufacturing. From this beginning a toxic brew of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is added. Many of these chemicals are still on tomatoes when they reach the market. Tomatoes are picked as ‘mature greens’ and exposed to ethylene in gassing chambers to ‘degreen’ them.

Workers who labour in the tomato fields are exposed to these chemicals daily. Laws limiting worker exposure to pesticides are poorly enforced. Most are illegal migrant labourers who work for minimum wage and receive virtually no legal protection. Many live in seriously sub-standard housing. Land owners distance themselves from labourers by hiring middlemen, crew leaders who oversee workers and pay out wages. This opens the system to an array of abuses, the worst being slavery.

Human traffickers enslave workers by entrapping them in a web of debt, charging monstrous rates for housing and food and then withholding wages until the ‘debt’ is paid. Enslaved workers are locked up between work days and threatened with violence against themselves or their families. The conviction rate against traffickers who practise this highly profitable racket is very low.

The question the consumer who buys the end product may ask is why are these tomatoes so flavourless? The answer is that decades of research have all been directed at meeting the producers’ requirements and taste is not important. What makes for good taste anyway? Estabrook turns to researchers at the University of Florida for insight. Taste, it seems, is a complicated thing, a combination of sugars and acids and the trace chemicals (volatiles) you can smell. I found the discussion of taste and the research that the search for a tastier tomato has engendered very interesting. Estabrook also looks at alternatives to the status quo, from organic farming to better housing for workers.

Tomatoland is a must-read for tomato lovers and highly recommended for any one interested in the inside story of industrial food production.

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Looking at the bananas in the grocery store, I have wondered if organic bananas are worth the extra few cents they cost. After all, you peel the skin off the banana, right? What difference does it make? The answer is it makes a lot of difference. It matters to the birds that use the banana grove and to the workers who have to spend time applying and living with the pesticides. In Costa Rica, banana plantations typically apply forty-five kilograms of active ingredients of pesticides per hectare.


It is now approaching half a century since Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring, was published in September of 1962. At one time, DDT was a household chemical. It was advertised in national magazines as just the thing for the happy wife. Carson’s book spearheaded a movement that eventually led to the banning of DDT in North America, yet DDT, a fat-soluable pesticide lives on in the food chain. Testing has found that its breakdown product, DDE, is found in the blood-stream of nearly everyone across North America, years after DDT was banned.

The types of pesticides used have changed since DDT, but we are using more pesticides than ever. Birds are in as much danger today as in the 1950s because modern pesticides are more lethal. Many pesticides that are acutely toxic to birds, such as chlorpyrifos and diazinon, are used widely on vegetable and fruit crops in the United States and Canada.

Pesticide use is even heavier in Central and South American countries. Pesticides that are regulated or banned in the U.S. may still be used and farmers often don’t have sufficient training to apply pesticides safely. Pesticide use is heavy because farmers spray pesticides according to a regular schedule, rather than as needed to treat a specific problem.


The top five crops in the United States that pose the greatest risk for pesticide poisoning of songbirds at the local level are Brussel sprouts, celery, cranberries, cabbage and potatoes. You can help to reduce the use of pesticides that threaten birds by purchasing organic produce at your grocery store. It’s better for you and your family, and its much better for birds and other wildlife.

If you feel that shade-grown coffee, which does come with a premium price tag, it too much for your budget, consider buying organic, fair trade coffee as the next best choice. Nabob brand coffee is working with the Rainforest Alliance to produce sustainable coffee and is a good choice for consumers looking to make a difference with their coffee dollars. Look for Nabob Rainforest Alliance certified cans.


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There is lots of talk about food these days. Slow food. Local food. Organic food. And now, no less a personage than Michelle Obama is leading the way to a healthy, locally grown, DIY organic diet. With help from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and a group of fifth graders, a 1,100 square foot vegetable garden was recently planted at the White House, the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden of World War II. It has quickly become one of the most high-profile vegetable gardens in the world. The garden will provide fresh vegetables and herbs for the first family’s meals and formal dinners. In addition, it is hoped that the garden will play another important role, teaching children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at a time when obesity and diabetes have become a national concern.

The garden will also include a couple of hives of honey bees, highlighting the plight of pollinators, with White House carpenter Charlie Brandts serving as the First Beekeeper.

Not everyone has been positively impressed by Mrs. Obama’s new organic garden, however. The pesticide industry is offended. In a letter, Mid America CropLife Association, an industry association representing more than 60 companies, set out information about the benefits of technology and pesticides in agriculture.

If you would like to follow Mrs. Obama’s example, but don’t have the time, space or inclination to grow your own vegetables, you can still enjoy farm-fresh organic produce. CSA farms (Community Supported Agriculture) are on the rise. To find one near you, check out the Ontario CSA site, or google your own locality.

Photo credit: Official White House, from The Daily Green.

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