by Scott Smith
A century after munitions makers first synthesized nitrogen fertilizer, followed by the introduction of toxic pesticides created by the chemical industry, modern agriculture—from large-scale farmers to backyard gardeners—is trapped in a vicious, deadly cycle.
Over-reliance on ammonia-based fertilizers has proved ruinous to soil health and has created widespread nutrient pollution in groundwater and waterways, killing aquatic wildlife and causing significant negative health effects in humans. Compounding the harm, synthetic fertilizers have fueled a dramatic rise in emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
As microorganisms in the soil that help protect plant life are killed off by nitrogen overload, increasing amounts of toxic pesticides are needed to address escalating insect, weed, and fungal problems. Rinse and repeat—only with newer, ever-more dangerous chemicals brought to market when previous poisons fail or are found deadly to pollinators, pets and people.
It’s well past time to get off this toxic treadmill. That’s why Friends of Animals is urging Connecticut lawmakers to pass legislation that bans the use of synthetic pesticides (including insecticides, rodenticides, herbicides and fungicides used on plants) as well as synthetic fertilizers on community greens and state public land. In their place, the changes to Environmental Protection section of the Connecticut General Statutes would mandate a transition back to organic lawn and landscape management, utilizing natural, organic or non-synthetic substances or synthetic soil amendments specifically listed on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
The state of Connecticut already recognizes the risks that toxic pesticides pose to human health, particularly to the developing brains and bodies of children, and has banned their use on K-8 school grounds. We can also point to the groundbreaking efforts by local municipalities, Stamford and Norwalk, which have recently enacted two of the most comprehensive pesticide bans of any communities in the nation.
“Connecticut has the opportunity to be a national leader in protecting wildlife, the environment and human health by acknowledging the fact that synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers are just two sides of the same dirty coin,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, an animal advocacy organization based in Darien, CT.
A key ally in Connecticut’s fight to ban toxic lawn treatments on public land is Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Feral first reached out to Beyond Pesticides more than a decade ago when she launched Pesticide Free Rowayton. Alarmed by the plethora of yellow pesticide application signs dotting the public parks in her coastal community, she learned that the poison being sprayed to control crabgrass at a waterfront park was Quinclorac, considered toxic to aquatic animals.
Feral was able to persuade local officials to make the waterfront park an organic showpiece for the community in 2013, and to forego the use of toxic pesticides on other public land areas.
The evidence Beyond Pesticides provided Feral is compelling: Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are possible or known carcinogens, 18 have the potential to disrupt the hormonal system, 19 are linked to reproductive effects and sexual dysfunction, 11 have been linked to birth defects, 14 are neurotoxic, 24 can cause kidney or liver damage, 25 are irritants, 19 are detected in groundwater and 20 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources. Likewise, 30 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 29 are toxic to bees, 14 are toxic to mammals and 22 are toxic to birds.
The perils of synthetic fertilizers are equally grave, and just as insidious. While the intensive use of petroleum-based fertilizers helped fuel the four-fold expansion of the human population over the last century, the “green revolution” has come at a terrible cost. Today, less than half the 120 million tons of chemical fertilizer applied each year is actually absorbed by plants. According to new research cited in a January 2023 article on phys.org, most of it seeps into the air and water, leading to deadly pollution, soil acidification, climate change, ozone depletion and biodiversity loss.
An organic approach to soil health
Passing new laws requiring the use of organic systems for pesticide management on state and public lands in Connecticut “is all is about creating resiliency in our ecosystem, not relying on toxic silver bullets,” says Jay Feldman, co-founder of Beyond Pesticides and director since 1981. “If you ban toxic pesticides, you also need to get rid of synthetic fertilizers to make a successful transition to organic lawn-care practices. To ban one without the other is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back.”
Synthetic, ammonia-based fertilizers give a lawn a quick nitrogen-fueled “green-up,” but the results are short-lived, and many chemical products sprayed by lawn-care companies like Tru-Green are actually toxic to soil organisms. “Synthetic fertilizer application begins the destruction of soil biodiversity by suppressing the role of nitrogen-fixing bacteria,” according to recent research studying the impact of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on soil health.
Conversely, organic fertilizers provide a gentle, slow release of a range of macro and micronutrients that nourish the lawn and landscape by feeding soil microorganisms. As biological life in the soil grows, this microorganism “microherd” can become so productive that it begins to cycle up to two pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet each month of the growing season, research from Beyond Pesticides shows.
Thus, the focus is not on using synthetic fertilizer products to keep up cosmetic appearances, but using organic fertilizers that enable soil life to naturally sustain grass and landscape plants. And not only is biological life in the soil better able to feed plants, it is also acting to prevent pest problems by building plant resiliency. Well-maintained organic lawns grow thicker grass, which crowds out weeds, and have fewer problems with insects like grubs because predators in the soil consume eggs and larvae before they have a chance to damage turf. Over time, this approach saves money by not requiring the frequent use of expensive, petroleum-based synthetic fertilizer or toxic pesticide applications.
“Valuing soil health with an organic approach to land management leads the way to sustainability,” says Feldman. “Plus, workers don’t have to handle poisons, and eliminating chemical fertilizers in favor of organic treatments improves the soil’s ability to sequester carbon at scale and takes nitrous oxides out of the equation—and atmosphere,” he adds. “That’s why Beyond Pesticides has moved away from a ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy of fighting to ban the latest worst pesticide in favor of advocating for a systemic, regenerative approach to how we should care for public land as well as our own backyards.”
A new vision for addressing the known problems of toxic pesticides and ruinous synthetic fertilizers across Connecticut is needed. A transition to organic lawn care and pesticide-free management of state public land and community greens is a sensible, achievable first step. That way, our pollinators will survive, our waters won’t foul with toxic algae blooms, and our children won’t suffer.
“State regulators and the industry they cater to always talk about needing ‘every tool in the toolbox,’ says FoA’s Feral. “They need a certain chemical to kill a certain bug. In truth, it’s the entire toxic toolbox that needs to be thrown out.”