The War on Weeds

Spring is in full-swing here in the Rocky Mountains, and what better way to celebrate the return of Earth's verdant bounty after the dormancy of winter, than with poison. Yes, that's right, all across America--from suburban lawns and golf courses to grassy knolls outside office parks, town halls and even schools--little yellow PESTICIDE APPLICATION signs are popping up instead of little yellow dandelion flowers. Perennial bulbs, tubers, taproots and rhizomes have stored precious energy reserves all winter long for this singular moment--the chance to sprout new leaves at the start of spring and to live another year--but before their tender young (leaves) ever have a chance, they will be chemically stunted, starved and asphyxiated by herbicides.


The annual culling of unwanted, unloved and misunderstood plants by tens of millions of Americans each Spring vis-a-vis the residential, commercial and agricultural application of herbicides and pesticides, may unwittingly, be the single largest, coordinated attack on biodiversity in human history. Certainly there are more violent and visibly destructive acts of environmental degradation, from mountaintop removal and open-pit mining to clear-cutting old growth forests and dumping toxic-waste in our oceans, lakes, rivers and estuaries, but few are as ubiquitous (and useless) in their silent destruction as the pro-forma application of herbicides.

America's obsession with botanical hegemony (which like other forms of hegemony, we export globally) amounts to a corporate and state-sponsored rein of bluegrass, ryegrass and bermuda grass no matter the climate or ecosystem. There are no fewer than 556 pesticides approved for use in the United States according to the Pesticide National Synthesis Project (and a staggering 17,000 products containing those pesticides for sale, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention). These chemicals span the alphabet from from 2,4-D and Abamectin to Ziram and Zoxamide; and like pharmaceuticals, they are increasingly branded with happy sounding names like "weed and feed". Taken together, over one billion pounds of pesticide active ingredient are used annually in the United States.

The state of California alone applied no less than 200 million pounds in in the most recent year where data is available (2013). Of that, roughly 15 million pounds were applied in residential and commercial (non-agricultural) settings. This is worth repeating: 15 million pounds of pesticides applied in a single year in a single state for no reason other than aesthetics. For what is the purpose of pesticides in a non-agricultural setting where there is no competition with food?

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000-20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur each year among the approximately 2 million U.S. agricultural workers. How many more are subject to chronic, low-level exposure and the associated elevated risk for certain types of cancer, birth defects and reproductive hardships? And for what? It is one thing for an experienced farmer to judiciously apply insecticide to protect a season's harvest, but it is quite another for homeowners, property management companies and city maintenance crews with little or no training, to casually and regularly apply broad-spectrum herbicides to land that is not cultivated for food nor any other productive use. It is economic and moral nonsense: allocating scarce resources to buy synthetic chemicals to put our families at elevated risk of illness for an increased yield of nothing.

To be sure, there are many different classes of pesticides, from Carbamates, Organochlorines, and Organophosphates that disrupt central nervous system functioning, to synthetic Pyrethrin, which is far less toxic, and common to thousands of household products. But few have been tested rigorously (or at all) for safety in human populations.

It is a tenant of American jurisprudence that all people are innocent until proven guilty, but we need not extend equal rights to synthetic chemicals. It is only logical that chemicals invented in a lab must be proven safe and effective before being introduced into our homes and the environment. Sadly, and to the detriment of our health, U.S. environmental policy does not follow the precautionary principle as does the European Union. So like asbestos, leaded gasoline, and DDT before that, we will continue to allow untested chemicals to be produced and applied everywhere and anywhere until the evidence of their damage is too damning to hide or refute.

Short of an Act of Congress (which seems about as likely as President Trump nominating Michael Pollan as the head of the USDA), we must change the social norms that govern the casual and cavalier application of pesticides and herbicides in our communities. We must be vocal in our opposition to neighbors and businesses that apply chemicals to their lawns just as we might if they were handing out cigarettes to children. We must be especially vigilant in public spaces--schools, libraries, parks, playgrounds, ballfields, and the like--for children are the most vulnerable population segment. 

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the direct victims of the 60-year war on weeds are both nutritious and delicious (that is, if you can find some that have not been sprayed with herbicides). Toasted dandelion roots steeped in hot water make a wonderful tea; their young leaves can be cooked up like spinach; their flowerheads make a spicy trail snack. Curly dock and lemon sorrel can be tossed in lemon and olive oil for a simple summer salad, while older leaves of the same taste best steamed or sautéed. And then there is clover and alfalfa, which any free-range cattle rancher can tell you are important sources of nutrition for their livestock. Humans are no different. You can graze on red clover flowers as you hike through an open meadow; or better yet, stash a couple in your pocket and make tea when you arrive home. And don't forget about burdock or stinging nettles or yarrow--powerful medicinal herbs that are commonly (and arbitrarily) designated as weeds. These are just a few of my favorite things. 

Indeed, on any given day May through September, I can find a dozen wild, edible and medicinal plants on the urban-wilderness periphery of they city where I live. But that is no accident. I am fortunate to live in a place where the protection of open space is enshrined in the city charter for all future generations. Without such protections, I would likely only find manicured lawns and chemically-induced monocultures. When wild plants are out-of-sight, and out-of-mind, we forget about the natural bounty that is yearning to grow--if only we let it.

Elliot CohenComment