by Fran Silverman
Beyond Pesticides is not only the name of a D.C.- based nonprofit environmental group, it is its exact and specific vision all wrapped up into one neatly tied mission: a world free of toxic pesticides.
Founded in 1981, the nonprofit has been a leader in the movement to restore flora and fauna ravaged by toxic pesticides—one park, town, city and state at a time. Since its inception, Beyond Pesticides has worked with more than 100 communities to establish policies that ditch toxic pesticides and herbicides in favor of organic and sustainable methods.
Included in its successes are two dozen communities that have passed restrictions on pesticide use, 16 municipalities that now have pesticide-free parks polices and 45 others that have passed policies that protect pollinators. The strongest legislation was put in place in Portland, Maine and Montgomery County, Maryland, which prohibit the use of pesticides on public as well as private property in favor of alternative, organic practices.
And now, Beyond Pesticides, supported by Friends of Animals and New York City Councilman Ben Kallos are promoting legislation that would ban the use of any toxic pesticides on any property owned or leased by the city.
With the environment under assault by the Trump Administration, which is rolling back regulations on toxic chemicals, Beyond Pesticide’s Executive Director Jay Feldman and Community Resource and Policy Director Drew Toher say that grass roots activism is key.
“It is in times when we feel discouraged by the lack of adequate attention by the federal government that the importance of local action increases exponentially,’’ Feldman said.
Action Line talked with Feldman and Toher about the impact of pesticides on wildlife and the environment and what community members can do to promote sustainable and toxic-free greenery. (Answers have been edited for clarity and space).
HOW DO PESTICIDES IN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE USE DIRECTLY AND INDIRECTLY AFFECT WILDLIFE?
Toher: The primary direct impact from pesticides are going to be through drifts and runoff. Even with a little wind, pesticides are going to move off site and are going to affect sensitive species such as bees, butterflies, pollinators and even mammals who are in the area.
Likewise, if you use a pesticide before rain, these chemicals are going to move through groundwater and eventually make their way into local lakes, rivers and streams where either the chemical or its equally toxic breakdown product is going to directly harm aquatic life.
There is a lot of evidence out there that pesticides kill off predators that otherwise manage the pests these chemicals are targeting. Anticoagulant rodenticides have caused significant harm to wildlife. These rodenticides are blood thinners and they target rats and mice, but they don’t kill the rodents outright. It actually takes some time for them to die and in meantime they become easy prey for predators who become poisoned and become weakened to the point where they develop disease.
We know this has happened in so many wildlife populations out there, owls, hawks, eagles, and fishercats, who have become threatened because of pesticide use. There are many reports of mountain lions in western California being poisoned and contracting the mange as a result of rodenticide use. It’s also a risk to people’s pets. You never know if a cat or dog could take a rodenticide-poisoned animal and eat it and then become poisoned themselves.
WHAT ARE THE COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS PROMOTED BY THE PESTICIDE INDUSTRY TO CONVINCE PEOPLE THAT THEY ARE THE MOST EFFECTIVE PRODUCTS?
Toher: The pesticide industry doesn’t really promote a positive message because there are very few positive aspects of chemical use. Pesticide manufactures simply try to convince people that their products are safe. They attack alternative systems that don’t rely on pesticide use and the industry hides behind the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval process for registering pesticides. However, there are many, many issues with the pesticide approval process to the point where we believe it fails to achieve any level of safety. The pesticides industry insists they are necessary to ‘feed the world’ despite the fact that there is now considerable evidence that we could indeed feed the global population through sustainable and organic practices.
WHAT ALTERNATIVES EXIST TO TOXIC PESTICIDES?
Feldman: Part of what we need to do when we ask about an alternative to attack a target pest is reframe the question. The question really is not how to kill the pests, but how to prevent the pests. What we are asking people to do is to think about their turf, their playing field, their park differently. Think about managing with a different approach that nurtures the soil biology.
Toher: For weed control we’d suggest two things. First reconsider the value of a weed. A clover is actually great for your lawn and up until the 1950s it was a staple product of American turf grass. It takes nitrogen from the air. It helps promote earthworms in abundance and of course it’s fantastic for pollinators. But after World War II we had chemical weapons and we found new uses for them and a slick marketing campaign relegated clover to weed status.
If you want that pure green lawn we would encourage folks to read their weeds. If you have clover, keep it but it’s a sign of low nitrogen so add nitrogen to your lawn. What we find is if you fix the soil and promote healthy microorganisms through practices like composting you will address your weed problems as well.
WHAT THREE STEPS CAN READERS TAKE TO BECOME FREE OF PESTICIDES?
Toher: The first step you want is to get a soil test. Get a baseline understanding of nutrients and pH balance in soil and then adjust your soil nutrient levels to the proper levels. We’d encourage some biodiverse plantings of native species and certainly if you do that you are going to help build resiliency in your landscape. The next thing I’d say is that you want to make sure you are aware of horticultural practices for maintaining whatever landscape you put in place, and part of that focus on soil health is adding organic matter. Look at pest problems as part of systems rather than problems in and of themselves. Focus on working with natural systems and correcting imbalances.
Feldman: I’m going to simplify this: Soil, appropriate plant species and understanding cultural practices.
WHAT THREE STEPS CAN READERS TAKE TO GET THEIR COMMUNITY TO GO PESTICIDE FREE?
Feldman: The first step is to get as much information as you can about current practices. Getting that information together at the front end is important to advancing a good program because then you can do a little analysis of that information, particularly the chemical use. Often the decision makers are not really tuned into what we may be aware of in terms of the potential adverse effects. Inevitably, some good stuff is being done and you have to be able to go into that community with that information, so you can pat people on the back on what they are doing right and then explain where things are breaking down and why.
Toher: First, find a group of like-minded allies. Start with your friends, your family, your neighbors, and consider reaching out to other environmental organizations, faith-based groups, community groups and garden clubs. Once you have that group, give yourself a name and that will help you establish your political presence in the community. Number two, make connections with local leaders and get a meeting to discuss this issue with them. Try to develop a champion for this cause who is willing to hold hearings on pesticide use and maybe eventually introduce the legislation that you are going for. Number three, build public support for a policy change. When you find that legislation champion and when they hold a hearing on pesticide reform, tell all of those folks that you’ve worked with to attend the hearing and provide their own public statements on this issue. The more people you are going to have who are attending this meeting the stronger your chances of success is going to be.
Feldman: Persistence is key.
This article originally appeared in FoA’s spring 2019 edition of Action Line.