RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Pesticides’ Unintended Consequences

After the 2,4D incident on my farm, sprayed by a neighbor and knocking back my grapevines and some other perennials, I’ve been feeling disempowered and, quite frankly, depressed and angry. 2,4D is a super volatile poison, an herbicide, part of Agent Orange. Another part is dioxin, created when 2,4D is made and applied. Together, they defoliate and make plants shrivel like onion skins. It kills everything in its path, and for that reason it was used to defoliate entire jungles in Vietnam so the GIs could see villages under the dense foliage.

Our veterans from that era are still paying the price. 2,4D is the poster child for unintended consequences. Developed to kill plants, it causes human cancers and Parkinson’s Disease. The Veterans’ Administration has a list of problems and thousands of disabled vets in treatment after contact with Agent Orange.

Unlike Roundup, which my neighbor used on the field across the road in years past, 2,4D can drift for miles. If it’s still on the ground, it also volatizes into a cloud when the weather gets hot, so the damage can go on even though the spraying was a week ago. In our case, the spraying was in mid-June and the damage kept evolving most of the summer. But Roundup was used too much. Weeds became immune to it. Now that Roundup is ineffective, farmers and homeowners, golf course managers and gardeners are using 2,4D to fight weeds.

And, in case you think this isn’t a political issue, think again! We’re spending millions of tax dollars on those roadsides and parks and we’re spending millions more helping biotech companies develop plants immune to 2,4D. When those are approved by the painfully ineffective FDA, giant farms will spray 2,4D over the fields like water, killing everything except the genetically altered plants. Then we’ll have Agent Orange and dioxin in the ditches, the creeks and the ocean.

I’ve written and talked about my loss but talking hasn’t helped much. I’m still angry, but I’ve learned a lot. It turns out that many of the organic and sustainable farms in my neighborhood have suffered the same problem. One of them was over-sprayed from an airplane, a crop duster, and lost all his tomato plants. Why didn’t I know this?

Because, in a commodity-based neighborhood like mine, where most of the income depends on corn, soybeans, or wheat, the little ones raising grapes and tomatoes, like me, are mute. We don’t want to create a stir. But, hey, guys, we gotta do it!

I’ve received more e-mails about that column than any other I’ve written. “What a sad story,” said one. “I’m so sorry to hear it,” said another. One related her incident, saying: “Springtime, several years ago, I was weeding our rock garden which also boarders the farm field. My skin began to tingle so I promptly headed for the shower. Once the water hit my body, my skin felt strangely uncomfortable and my eyes began to burn. I suspect chemical drift from spraying though I can’t prove it. I rarely weed that garden anymore and am reluctant to go outside ...” But, then, a note from a New York reader made me sit up straight, put my shoulders back and start to write something new. He asked a simple question: What can we do to prevent this?

He’s seen signs in the yards, “Herbicides applied … keep off the grass” and it disgusts him. In front of my farm, we have one that says, “No drift zone.” As if the droplets and vapor clouds can read.

The answer, rather than attacking the weeds, is to learn something about them. Maybe some of them are helpful, bringing nutrients from below. Maybe others are fragile, here today and gone tomorrow and relatively harmless. Maybe some are useful in some ways. What if we noted the habits of each weed, rather than treating them all like enemies. Would that work? Of course it would!

And maybe we can change our attitudes, our demands for tidy parks and roadsides. We can develop an eye that tolerates a little shagginess and clutter.

Like all big issues, we each need to start with ourselves. So do you have a little patch of green? Can you tolerate it getting a little weedy, a little rough? There’s no doubt that most folks get all their garden information from companies with something at stake. Gardeners learn how to fight dandelions, for example, by reading ads from herbicide companies. They don’t stop to observe that the dandelion season is very short, a few weeks, and then it’s over.

Even better news, dandelions can get crowded out of a healthy lawn if you don’t mow too often or too short. Really! Most folks over-mow! Gives us a sense of purpose, us humans, but it’s no good for the grass.

A good many weeds are like this. In my neighborhood, chickweed, purslane, lambs quarters and poke all grow where they’re not wanted. But, guess what! They’re edibles, and useful substitutes for lettuces and spinach.

So, begin with your own patch. Maybe try a little foraging. See if you can’t control those weeds by devouring them … but be sure to stay away from the sprays.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2013

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2013 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652