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Chemical companies 'misleading' gardeners over toxic pesticides

Sarah Bentley

29th June, 2011

Despite a surge of interest in organic gardening, green fingered consumers continue to favour toxic chemicals to combat pests. But are they being exploited by clever marketing and inaccurate labelling? Sarah Bentley investigates

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary how does your garden grow? If Mary answered in a way that’s reflective of the majority of British gardeners today, instead of silver bells and cockle shells the answer would be a resounding, 'With 2,4-D, clopyralid and neonicotinoids.' 

As oxymoronic as it may seem un-green gardens and sheds full of toxic chemicals are endemic across the UK. For most amateur gardeners the closed loop system - as striven towards by followers of permaculture and organics - is an alien concept. Instead fossil fuel dependent, mass produced, often imported products – pots, seed trays, lanterns, pond liners, ornaments, green houses – are the norm, as are a battalion of toxic chemical based products to feed, defend and purge plants, crops and lawns.

In an increasingly urbanised country gardeners may not realise the crucial role their hobby can play in maintaining local ecology. A recent RHS report 'Gardening Matters: Urban Gardens', found that urban gardens help to cool cities, prevent urban flooding, provide urban biodiversity and support human health. The report stated there was growing evidence that some declining species such as the common frog, song thrush and hedgehog once common in low-intensity farmland, are now more abundant in urban areas, and particularly in domestic gardens.

Pauline Pears, Publishing Editor of Garden Organic, would like all urban gardens to be, 'an oasis for biodiversity displaced from the countryside as monocultures and heavy pesticides and herbicide usage has pushed them out.'

However the shopping habits of the nation reveal we are far from that ideal. Figures from sales tracking organisation Gfk Retail and Technology found between April 2010 and 2011 the sales of flying insecticide products grew by 64 per cent and weed killer by 58 per cent, the largest growth rates of any domestic garden product.

Quick chemical fix

Despite increasing mainstream media coverage and heightened awareness about the ecological benefits of organic growing (which supports a greater range of biodiversity and doesn’t negatively impact upon pollinator populations, wildlife, the water table and human health) British gardeners are still reaching for quick fix, chemical based solutions.

Dominic Dyer is the Chief Executive of the Crop Protection Association, the industry body that represents agrochemical companies such as Montsanto, Dow, Bayer Garden and the Scotts Company. He believes that having invested time and money to create a desirable garden, 'Gardeners want to protect their valuable plants from pests and disease and that sometimes the most efficient way to do this is to use a garden chemical.'

Ben Raskin, Horticulture Advisor for the Soil Association, believes such products are an illusion of efficiency as they don’t eliminate the cause of the problem. 'For example, rather than use a herbicide the best way to get rid of moss in your lawn is to scarify it (rake it) which removes the conditions moss needs to grow. Moss killer adds to the problem as decomposing matter provides the perfect conditions for more growth.'

This vicious circle also applies to the use of insecticides. 'They’re not pest specific – they kill everything in that area including aphid eating insects such as lady birds,' explains Raskin. 'Once you’ve started killing off the natural aphid predators, you’re hooked into the product cycle.'

RHS Entomologist Andrew Halstead concurs that most pesticides are, 'not selective and do kill non target insects.' He highlights the fact that although many herbicides have, 'No direct insecticidal activity' using them will consequently affect 'all the wildlife associated with the plants that have been killed,' an insight which many amateur gardeners may not be privy too.

Lack of awareness

Along with the cultural paradigm for manicured, weed free gardens Nick Mole of the Pesticide Action Network believes lack of awareness about the interconnectivity of insects and eco-systems and non-chemical alternatives has fuelled the ongoing rise in garden chemical sales.

'For the last fifty years the huge belief in the value of chemical growing has displaced old knowledge. What would be genuinely effective is for modern technology to be combined with traditional husbandry – crop rotation, terracing, companion planting. But that doesn’t fit the profit margins of agro-business. Domestic weed and pest control is a huge money-spinner. Knowledge isn’t,' he says. 

Outside the realms of advocacy groups and industry lobbyists the consumer rational for using herbicides, pesticides and insecticides is pragmatic and often boils down to local influence.

The majority of allotment growers in Grantham, Lincolnshire, for example, use a mix of chemical product using vegetable growers with a hand full of organic dedicates. One grower said he used pesticides simply because his grandfather (who first got him started on vegetable growing) told him to use it whilst another grower kept their plot weed free through regular applications of herbicides because they liked it to look 'neat and tidy.'

Knowledge about techniques such as biological intervention, companion planting and IPM (Integrated Pest Management) was patchy and perceived as 'time consuming' and 'probably not as reliable as products.'

One of the few organic growers, who asked not to be named, said. 'Some of the older growers throw chemicals about like water. They’ve got stuff in their sheds that’s ancient. I’ve seen people empty bottles onto unused plots. I don’t think they realise how strong the stuff is and how far it can spread.'

Toxic marketing

Given the nature of how these products are marketed it’s hardly surprising many consumers don’t realise just how toxic they are and what the potential ecological impacts – water table poisoning, loss of biodiversity, ground contamination - are of over zealous application and improper disposal.

Nick Mole of the Pesticide Action Network says 'it’s not known to what extent home and garden pesticides contribute to contamination of our environment. However, in densely populated areas, such as the Thames region, it is highly likely that use and inappropriate disposal of home and garden pesticides contribute significantly to water contamination.'

The lack of publicised, accessible information also means when chemicals are withdrawn products such as bifenthrin (a pesticide withdrawn in May 2010) and chlorpyrifos, (an organophosphate insecticide withdrawn in August 2008) will linger in garden sheds and be used for years after.

Dr Stephens Woodward, a Professor in the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Aberdeen University says 'organophosphates probably cause nerve damage to humans. There were cases of shepherds getting the shakes thought to be caused by exposure to it in sheep dip. I don’t like the idea of this hanging about in people’s gardens.' 

The jarringly different messages on the front and back labels of these types of products verges on the comical. Front labels depict picturesque displays of social and ecological harmony – jubilant children, magnificent flowers, frolicsome fauna – while the back features warnings such as - DANGEROUS TO THE ENVIRONMENT, ACUTE TOXICITY TO AQUATIC LIFE – alongside foreboding silhouettes of dead fish and barren trees.

There is little regulation about how such warnings are displayed but from December 2011 garden pesticides on sale in the UK must state ‘Use pesticides safely. Always read the label,’ on the front of the packaging.

It could be reasonably argued that the marketing of domestic chemical products can be misleading. On the Scotts Company’s marketing website  a cartoon frog features next to advice on how to use Ever Green lawn care products, despite the warning on the products back label stating, 'Harmful to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment.'

Lack of regulation

Surprisingly there is no EU or UK regulation that governs the use of terms such as organic, natural and chemical-free (an amusing example of bad science given that water is a chemical substance) and consequently they are bandied about with impunity.

Pauline Pears believes British gardeners are 'totally bamboozled by the plethora of labels' – many of which manufacturers have created themselves. 'There’s a lot of green wash,' she says. 'There’s products with trade names such as Organic Choice that would never be considered organic as far as the movements concerned.'

At the recent Garden Organic Conference 'Maximising retail potential in a sustainable world' one garden centre owner told of her success at steering customers towards organic lines by creating a display using a sunflower organic logo she’d made herself.

'Although it is concerning logo’s can be invented like this,' says Pears, 'it is encouraging consumers want this guidance and therefore garden centre’s can and should be more proactive about encouraging sustainable gardening solutions.'

According to DEFRA pesticides have been available in the UK for amateur use for well over 100 years. Prior to the introduction of statutory controls on pesticides in 1986 there were two voluntary safety schemes, the Pesticides Safety Precautions Scheme (PSPS) and the Agricultural Chemicals Approval Scheme (ACAS).

Today for a chemical to be sold legally it must be approved by the EU and then in the UK by the Chemicals Regulation Directive (CRD), a branch of DEFRA. These safety tests are organised and paid for by the agrochemical companies and a dossier of findings presented to the CRD for approval. The costs of getting a new chemical on the market can be as high as £175m with CRD fees to carry out the evaluation needed for a new chemical to be given a unique registration number known as MAPP, between £50-£180,000.

Products withdrawn

Most amateur garden pesticides and herbicides are a diluted versions of products developed for commercial agricultural use. From 2003 the EU has been undertaking a review of such products and consequently over the last decade many have been withdrawn not just for toxicity reasons but because it wasn’t commercially viable for manufacturers to carry out additional safety tests.

Tim Davis, Head of Pesticides Policy Development Team at the CRD says that 'about 1000 chemicals went through the review process and about 300 came through it. Some products are withdrawn and then come back again after they’ve gone through the necessary procedures. It’s more often about investment and economics as opposed to toxicity, although this is occasionally the reason for withdrawal.' 

Of the garden products currently on the market the chemicals with the most controversy around them are neonicotinoids (acetamiprid, imidacloprid, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam), 2,4-D and clopyralid.

Neonicotinoids are found in insecticides such as Westland Bug Attack, Bug Clear Gun! and Provado Ultimate Bug Killer Spray. There is concern they harm pollinator populations, in particular bees, and that the current approval processes are insufficient to detect their long-term ecological impact. They have already been banned in France, Germany and Italy and environmentalists, MPs and the general public are putting pressure on the UK to follow suit. 

Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor Bob Watson has asked to receive regular updates on any new research in this area but has not, as has been widely reported, launched an investigation.

Clopyralid is a herbicide that targets broad leaf weeds and can be found in domestic lawn care products such as Evergreen Lawn Weed Killer, Vitax Lawn Clear 2 and Weedol Lawn Weed Killer. After conducting research the US Environmental Protection Agency said that clopyralid had 'the potential to leach to ground water and or contaminate surface water.'

Studies in the US and New Zealand found clopyralid in compost from domestic grass clippings treated with lawn care product and in the UK it has been found in the manures of animals who have grazed on treated grass. Compost and manure containing clopyralid can kill a range of plants and crops.

In February following discussions between WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Program), the CRD and manufacturers it was decided new wording must appear on all amateur products containing clopyralid by February 2014. 'After treatment, leave the clippings from the first mowing on the lawn. The next three mowings should be composted well, for at least 9 months, before being used as a mulch. Do not dispose of the grass clippings via council composting schemes.'

Mixed messages

Pauline Pears finds this a bizarre course of action. 'It’s a mixed message. So it’s OK to compost grass treated with clopyralid at home, but it’s not OK for the council. Where are people who don’t compost supposed to put their grass clippings? And do you want the first cut of grass sitting on your lawn because it’s too toxic to put elsewhere? Also it’s impossible to police. People will still put clippings in their green wheelie bin as they either won’t have read the label or won’t have anywhere else to put it.'

Herbicide 2,4-D is ubiquitous in domestic lawn care products and weed killers. The Environment Agency says 2,4-D can be 'harmful to fish and other wildlife and is toxic to humans at high concentrations.' Despite its prevalence Dr Stephen Woodward is surprised it’s still in use. He says it is 'potentially a carcinogenic but it’s definitely very toxic. I wouldn’t like to think of people dusting it about on their lawns, especially if they’ve got children.'

Do any significant changes lie ahead for the domestic garden industry? It would appear so. By November Defra will have put new legislation into place based on the EU’s pesticides Sustainable Use Directive.

But Nick Mole of The Pesticide Actions Network says this will change very little. 'Had the government implemented the directive in the spirit it was intended it would have meant a paradigm shift in the way pesticides are used, sold and marketed across all sectors. The government and industry fought tooth and nail against it and will not be implementing anything of consequence.'

New practices the Pesticide Action Network wanted to see adopted included a ban on the use of pesticides in schools, parks and hospitals; a targeted phase out of the most hazardous pesticides; mandatory prior notification to residents if a pesticide is being sprayed near their homes; the halting of sales of domestic use pesticides in shops that don’t have trained staff to talk to customers about the product and alternative methods; and the introduction of a robust system of IPM fully supported by advisory and research services to help farmers and home growers make more informed choices.

Outside the frustrations and red tape of bureaucracy Mole believes one of the most powerful ways of reducing chemical use in home gardens is to change people’s attitudes. 'Love your weeds, accept a bit of collateral damage from pests and ask yourselves does a bit of moss, a few dandelions and some aphids really justify using a toxic chemical?'  

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