Waiting for Organic Pot

A young friend recently took a look at my garden and suggested that I could grow a few marijuana plants for personal use.

I looked into it, out of curiosity.

Long before I searched for sources of seeds or seedlings, or cultivation advice, I learned that, unless I had a genuine medical need for the herb, growing marijuana (Cannabis sativa) in my garden would be illegal. The related regulations at the local, state and federal levels are full of contradictions and different perspectives, and are in flux.

I’ll wait.

Many hundreds of illegal marijuana “grows” exist already in the Monterey Bay area, and thousands in California, including many in California’s “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties. The numbers are growing, and it is not difficult to find pot, if one were to be inclined to try it.

Last week, at the 36th annual Eco-Farm Conference, in Pacific Grove, Dr. Andy Gordus of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, described and illustrated the impacts of illegal and therefore unregulated marijuana grows in California. The growers are illegally clearing forest lands, damming streams, digging wells that drain streams that wildlife depend on, polluting waterways and killing wildlife with pesticides, leaving mountains of trash, and otherwise being really bad neighbors.

Marijuana plants, like other plants, are subject to a variety of pests and diseases, and growers use a variety of synthetic agricultural chemicals, including some highly toxic materials that are being smuggled in from Mexico. Such chemicals may be sprayed on growing plants, or applied systemically. Also, because rats and other animals chew through plastic irrigation lines, rat poisons are often used.

Marijuana products may be used by inhaling, ingesting, and absorbing through the skin. These diverse forms of use mean that users should ensure that their marijuana does not contain toxic substances. Consumers of marijuana products ideally could rely on the organic label, but at this time there is no such label for these products. Consumers can only rely on trusted sources.

California does not approve any aspect of marijuana cultivation, including pesticides, because it continues to be illegal at the federal level. The federal government also does not recommend pesticides for illegal crops.

In this bizarre environment, California has provided informational guidelines that include a short list of organic pesticides and natural rodenticides that “may be used in and around marijuana cultivation sites consistent with the label.” Visit www.waterboards.ca.gov and search for “Legal Pest Management Practices for Marijuana Growers in California.”

For more information, visit the websites of the Santa Cruz County’s Cannabis Cultivation Choices Committee, or Organic Cannabis Growers Society.

For now, I’ll wait.

During four days last week, the Eco-Farm Conference provided updates about a wide range of organic gardening and farming practices, and related state and federal policies. The short story is that organic, sustainable and regenerative gardening is healthy and expanding steadily. I’ll have more to report in future columns.

Labels are Important

Our gardens are mostly dormant during the winter, but government regulators never rest! This column offers a brief update on three current debates over garden-related regulations.

Labeling Foods as Genetically Engineered

Almost all consumers, when responding to surveys, have said they want labels on foods that are based on genetically engineered plants or animals. I wrote about this issue in late spring of 2015: go to ongardening.com to read “GMO Controversy.”

Consumers in several states, including California, have tried to require labels on such foods, but industry groups have argued against the related ballot measures. Vermont succeeded in adopting this labeling requirement, to be effective in July of 2016. Since then, opponents lost their legal challenge of the requirement, and failed to persuade Congress to ban such requirements (the House approved, the Senate didn’t).

Most recently, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responding to pressure4s from both side of the debate, issued “Guidance to Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants.” In brief, the nonbinding recommendations of this Guidance allow voluntary labeling that is truthful and not misleading (as required by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 1938).

The FDA is currently accepting comments on its similar draft guidance for labeling genetically engineered Atlantic salmon.

An increasing number of food producers are voluntarily labeling such foods, but the ultimate resolution, a uniform federal requirement, would benefit all parties.

Labeling Foods as “Natural”

FDA, responding to another set of pressures, has requested comments regarding “Use of the Term ‘Natural’ in the Labeling of Human Food Products.” The issue becomes more complex than it would seem at first. Long-standing federal policy interprets “natural” food to mean that it contains nothing artificial or synthetic that would not normally be expected to be in the food.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America want to label as “natural” foods derived from genetically engineered plants or animals.

The Consumers Union wants to prohibit the use of “natural” on any food labels, indicating that the large majority of consumers believe “natural” means no use of artificial materials, chemicals, ingredients, colors, toxic pesticides or genetically engineered plants or animals.

Labeling Garden Chemicals as Toxic

The World Health Organization has found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used pesticide RoundUp, is a probable carcinogen to humans. In response, consumer groups have asked California’s Environmental Protection Agency to label RoundUp as a carcinogen. The agency received comments on this action until late October of 2015, and is now considering those comments.

Most recently, the agency is currently receiving comments on proposed changes to clarify existing requirements for “clear and reasonable” warnings of a variety of exposure situations.

Another chemical that is under fire is imidacloprid, one of the neonicotinoid insecticides (called “neonics”) that has been linked to risks to honey bees hives. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved agricultural uses of this chemical, but in response to President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, and recent scientific studies by the State of California, has released a “preliminary pollinator risk assessment” that imidacloprid use potentially poses risks to bee hives. This assessment focuses on agricultural crops and does not consider this chemical’s risks to bees when used on ornamental flowering plants!

Chemical companies that produce this chemical insist that bees are not at risk when this company is used correctly.

The EPA is inviting feedback during 60-day comment period. It is continuing assessment of the risks of this chemical and three other neonics, with more findings to be released in December of 2016.

Historic Issues in the Garden

The growing community of organic gardeners—which hopefully includes you—represents the “good guys” in several current struggles between public and private interests in gardening and commercial agriculture. Gardeners and farmers are quite different in many respects, but both are engaged in growing plants.

Mother Nature also grows plants, and has been doing so successfully since the dawn of time.

For about 10,000 years, gardeners and farmers have cooperated with Mother Nature to grow and harvest plants to eat, treat illnesses, dye fabrics, and enjoy their beauty and fragrance. They gradually developed ways to increase yields, reduce the work of growing and improve the qualities of their plants. For the most part, these changes have been compatible with natural processes.

Eventually, people adopted various technologies to improve gardening and especially farming. Beginning 4,500 years ago, various inorganic materials and organic substances derived from natural sources were used as pesticides. Major agricultural technologies include the mechanical reaper (1831) by Cyrus McCormick, and the tractor (1868), both of which brought new efficiencies.

In the 1940s, agribusiness began using synthetic chemical pesticides and great quantities of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. In both cases, there was little or no knowledge of the impacts of these chemicals on human health or the environment.

Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962) raised awareness of the conflict between public and private interests related to agrichemicals.

In the 1970’s, research began to development Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies, which rely upon natural processes and do not use synthetic chemicals. IPM became widely used beginning in the late 1970s.

During more recent decades, continuing research and development produced more selective products, including glyphosate, which soon became most widely used herbicide, worldwide.

The ancient methods of organic gardening continued throughout this history, but the seeming cost-effectiveness of uses of agrichemicals dominated commercial agriculture.

Today, we are discovering the consequences of attempts to fool Mother Nature. Insects are developing resistance to synthetic insecticides, weeds are developing resistance to synthetic herbicides, and we are discovering that at least some of these materials threaten our health.

The State of California already has listed 800 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm, and early this month issued a notice of intent to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen.This classification is based on the findings of the World Health Organization. See: CSG Prop 65 Heirloom EXPO FLYER Glyphosate 9-7-15.

In addition, speakers at recent conferences have called for uses of regenerative agriculture, which is a form of organic farming designed to build soil health or regenerate unhealthy soils. This practice could counteract “conventional” agriculture’s destructive practices, which include uses of synthetic chemicals. Many of those chemicals weaken or kill the soil microbiota, and thereby disrupt the natural carbon cycle and contribute substantially to global warming.

By any measure, we are now in a historic period of change, to reject shortsighted agricultural technology and return to more natural processes. Our health and the health of the environment depend on the success of this transition.

 

Carbon Farming

Climate change has been described as the consequence of the Industrial Revolution, which introduced extensive burning of fossil fuels. This practice disrupts the natural balance of carbon in the soil, the atmosphere and the ocean. Plans to slow or reduce the process of climate often emphasize reducing uses of fossil fuels.

Recently, and all too briefly, we explored the relationship between gardening and climate change. We have learned that common agricultural practices generate about one-third of the surplus CO2 in the atmosphere, making commercial farming a substantial part of the climate change problem.

Prior to the development of modern agriculture, we had organic farming, which is generally compatible with natural processes. The practices we now call “conventional” farming include driving a tractor, tilling the soil, over-grazing, and using fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Similarly, farm animals once were raised in pastures, where they grazed on grasses and other plants. Today, cows, pigs and chickens are raised in tight quarters, provided grains and other feed that they work hard to digest, and must be dosed with antibiotics to maintain basic health.

These contemporary, presumably efficient methods are depleting the carbon stores in the soil, and reducing the soil’s natural ability to support plant growth and store moisture.

Soil scientists and environmentalists have been discovering land management strategies that can reduce the rate of loss of soil carbon, and even improve the rate at which agriculture can convert atmospheric CO2 into plant material and soil organic matter. When thoughtfully applied, carbon methods can add significantly to the rate of soil carbon sequestration, and actually reverse the climate change process.

Dozens of specific practices are included in carbon farming; all look like historical organic farming and common sense. The principal methods are composting, grazing by hoofed animals (ungulates), maintaining high percentages of organic matter in the soil (to feed the microbiota), supporting biodiversity, rotating crops and discontinuing uses of synthetic chemicals. The most effective practices orchestrate multiple methods in plans designed for specific circumstances.

Carbon farming, also called regenerative agriculture, should be part of the global response to the threat of climate change, but reduced burning of fossil fuels will still be important.

These promising methods for the management of agricultural lands can have substantial impacts when applied on a large scale, but they also have value when applied in residential gardens. In this column, we have advocated organic methods as beneficial to our flora and fauna. We find now that these methods also have long-term benefits to the health of the soil and the natural balance of carbon in our environment.

For more about this important topic, read Kristin Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us (2014), (which a reader recommended to me), and search the web for “carbon farming” and “regenerative agriculture.”

If you are growing plants and raising animals on hundreds of acres, try carbon farming. If not, by all means, garden organically!

Gardening to Reverse Climate Change

The threat of climate change has become a concern among scientists, environmentalists and gardeners (who might wear all three of these hats, of course). In the search for solution to this problem, these three interested parties have common ground, as we explore in this column.

As background, our climate is changing as a result of a disruption of the Carbon Cycle.

On Plant Earth, a fixed amount of carbon cycles through different forms: liquid, solid, or gas.

Carbon enters the atmosphere from several sources, including respiration of animals and plants, decay of animals and plants, eruptions of volcanoes, and releases of dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) from the oceans.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, and use photosynthesis to release oxygen back into the atmosphere and convert carbon into sugars that support the plant’s above-ground growth. At the same time, up to 40% of the CO2 goes to the plant’s roots, to feed soil microbes. The microbes assist the plant to acquire nutrients through its roots, and lock (“sequester”) carbon into the soil for very long periods.

The Carbon Cycle supports Earth’s climate and enables the growth of plants and literally all other living things.

Carbon Cycle

Credit: NASA/Globe Project

In the diagram above, notations in blue indicate pools of carbon and notations in red indicate fluxes of carbon, both quantities are measured in petagrams.

This complex natural process balances the amount of carbon in liquid, solid and gas forms. Vast amounts of carbon are stored in the soil and fossil fuels, and much smaller amounts are stored in the atmosphere, the oceans, and plants.

During the Industrial Revolution (1760 to c. 1830), humans began burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, draining wetlands, converting grasslands to large-scale crops, paving paradise, and applying synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These activities have been disrupting the Carbon Cycle and altering this important balance.

The consequences include degraded soil with reduced ability to capture carbon, an excess of carbon in the atmosphere, the acidification of the oceans, and other effects, none of which are beneficial to living things (including us).

The broad term, climate change, encompasses all these negative effects.

Restoring the natural Carbon Cycle could reverse climate change.

Restoration requires feeding the soil with organic matter and planting cover crops to protect the soil from temperature extremes and erosion. In short, the solution is based upon regenerative, organic agriculture.

This strategy must be employed on a global scale, but we all should understand the Carbon Cycle and support this process of soil restoration in our own gardens and in our individual contributions to relevant public policy. Substantial private interests are invested in fossil fuels, “conventional” monoculture agriculture that depends upon synthetic chemicals, and other industrial methods that are changing our climate. They can be expected to resist this strategy of working with nature, so eventual success requires our vision and long-term commitment.

Each gardener could participate first in his or her own garden. That would be a fine way to celebrate our independence from, in this context, commercial interests.

Continue reading

Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

We are in the midst of National Pollinator Week (June 15–21)! An unprecedented group of twenty-four conservation and gardening organizations has formed the National Pollinator Garden Network and, with First Lady Michelle Obama, launched the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

MPGC-FINAL-315x315

The Network challenges the nation’s gardeners to create one million additional pollinator gardens by the end of 2016.

This campaign encourages home gardeners to help reverse the decline of honeybees and native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. This extraordinary initiative underlines the importance of pollinators to our food supply and invites home gardeners to take effective personal action even as the nation’s Pollinator Task Force mobilizes more than fifteen federal agencies to improve pollinator health.

In a recent column, we urged keeping your garden free of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, and using less-toxic alternatives. The Pollinator Partnership (www.pollinator.org), a member of the new Network, offers specific advice:

  1. Plant for Pollinators (the website includes a link to a cellphone app that lists 1,000 pollinator friendly plants native to the United States)
  2. Reduce or eliminate the impact of pesticides.
  3. Register as a SHARE site (see more about this below)
  4. Reach out to others – inform and inspire
  5. Buy local and organic produce, including honey
  6. Conserve all of our resources; use less and reduce your impact.
  7. Support the work of groups promoting science based, practical efforts for pollinators

The Network concurs with these recommendations, as expected, and adds these complementary ideas:

  1. Provide a water source
  2. Situate your garden and/or plants in a sunny area with wind breaks
  3. Create large “pollinator targets” of native or non-invasive plants
  4. Establish continuous blooms throughout the growing season

Once you establish your pollinator habitat garden, visit share.pollinator.org/ to register your garden on the Pollinator Partnership’s SHARE site. Adding your garden to the site’s map of the United States gives you personal bragging rights as a friend to pollinators and supports the effort to encourage others to participate in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

The website for the Challenge (http://millionpollinatorgardens.org/) provides links to each of its members, and most (or all) of these groups identify pollinator-friendly plants.

Still, because gardening is specific to location, Monterey Bay area gardeners should focus on plants to native to the local region. To find such plants, visit these websites:

California Native Plant Society 

Las Pilates Nursery

Xerces Society

Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. The bees and other pollinators will thank you, and your garden will be richer for the effort.

GMO Controversy

I’ve been reading lately about genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as GMOs. The preferred term is genetic engineering (GE).

There are strong feelings about whether GE technology is good or not so good for people, for the environment, or for the future of food.

These days, given the resources of the Internet, we can read a seemingly inexhaustible series of opinions about GE foods, and be tempted to escape the controversy by simply adopting one or the other extreme position.

The controversy has narrowed down to the issue of labeling GE foods. Those in favor say shoppers should know what they are buying, while others insist that there’s no reason to label GE foods, and are willing to put a lot of money into persuading voters of that perspective.

In my search for truth, I just read Steven M. Drucker’s 511–page book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth (2015). Drucker, a Berkeley-educated public interest attorney, has written and spoken extensively on genetic engineering and related topics. His book’s subtitle presents his central message: “How the venture to genetically engineer our food has subverted science, corrupted government and systematically deceived the public.”

Drucker builds his thesis with detailed and specific references to respectable sources, including highly qualified scientists and government officials. As a lawyer, he surely selects supportive sources, and presents a convincing case. Here are some of his main points.

Many scientists and government officials have advocated the promise of genetic engineering to enable commercial agriculture to meet global needs for the volume and nutritional quality of food. Still, there is literally no evidence that GE foods are more productive or more nutritious than conventional foods, despite contrary claims. In reality, GE technology has been used primarily to produce crops that can tolerate the herbicide Roundup, which kills all plant life other than the GE crops.

The advocates’ early enthusiasm for this technology led to a waiver of legally required tests to demonstrate the safety of new food products. This waiver was based on the argument that GE foods are no different from conventional foods, and are “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). But hundreds of scientists regard GE technology as dramatically different from historical methods of plant hybridization and selection, and express concerns about the safety of GE foods. While people do not immediately become ill from eating GE foods, several studies have shown that they could have long-term negative impacts on human health.

Finally, genetic engineering, which has been called a precise method to modify organisms, is really a form of crude “hacking.” Scientists have a very limited understanding of the complex interactions of genes, and, in their ignorance, they are fooling around with Mother Nature.

Drucker advocates the elimination of GE food products as “inherently high-rick” and unable to “conform to the requirements of food safety laws, the standards of science, or the protocols of information technology.” He contends that this could be accomplished by simply enforcing the food safety law of 1958. His preferred alternative is fuller development of environmentally friendly, sustainable and natural methods based on time-honored practices of organic agriculture.

As a growing numbers of food retailers and restaurants adopt “GMO-free” food products, and their customers choose organic foods (which are GMO-free, by definition), the technology could fade away. We’ll see.

A related book, “GMO Myths and Truths,” is available as a free download from the website, EarthOpenSource. This is second edition, dated 2014. The authors of this 330+ page book are John Fagan, Ph.D., Michael Antoniou, Ph.D., and Claire Robinson, M.Phil. The book is subtitled “An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops and foods.”

The Bees Need Our Help

Gardeners can enjoy gardening at many levels. We can experience the Zen of Weeding, as I did this afternoon, and then shift to enjoy one of gardening’s many other dimensions.

Gardening often turns up in the wonderful world of public policy, a dimension that can resemble a house of mirrors.

The Case of Colony Collapse Disorder, an example of gardening in public policy, is in the current news with a flurry of contradictions.

Bee on Purple Flower

Colony Collapse Disorder refers to the widespread, sudden mysterious deaths of entire bee colonies. We deplore the premature demise of these colonies, and sympathize with the industrious victims, and fear the potential threat to our own wellbeing: bees pollinate about one-third of all the fruits and vegetables we eat.

Scientists studying the causes of CCD suspect a combination of factors, and environmentalists focus on neonicontinoids, a category of very effective and widely used systemic pesticides. Both commercial crops and garden center plants and seeds are often treated with “neonics” (as they are called). Several European nations have banned neonics, but the United States currently permits their uses.

Manufacturers of neonics have insisted that CCD results from several other factors, e.g., Varroa mites, Nosema fungus, viruses, drought, and loss of habitat. Others have speculated that bee colonies are traumatized by the practice of trucking hundreds of beehives to large-scale agricultural sites, such as California’s almond trees groves.

In May of 2014, Harvard University reported an environmental scientist’s research that “strengthens the link between neonics and CCDs. The head of the National Academy of Sciences’ earlier study of the problem dismissed that research, and called it “effectively worthless,” because it was based on bees’ exposure to pesticides at doses far above typical levels.

On June 20, 2014, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum calling for the creation of a federal strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators. This call to action included an order for the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the effect of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on pollinator health. The Task Force, including multiple federal departments, was to develop a National Pollinator Health Strategy within 180 days, so its report was due around Christmas time last year. Presumably, it has been subjected to internal review since that target date.

On March 20, 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that honey production in 2014 was up 19 percent from 2013, leading some to conclude that the CCD problem was over. Beekeepers had imported Australian honeybees to replace hives lost to CCD, so that conclusion might require another look.

These events provide a glimpse of the process of creating public policies, which are influenced by environmental, economic and political forces, and which eventually impact our interests as individuals.

No one has suggested that neonics are good for the honeybees. The goal is to balance the undeniably negative effects of agricultural chemicals with the anticipated positive long-term effects on our food supplies, recreational gardening and quality of life.

Gardeners can help the bees in small ways.

  • Plant bee-friendly gardens.
  • Do not use garden chemicals containing neonics.
  • When buying plants or seeds, ask the retailer if those items are free of neonics.

Organic gardening methods would be best for gardeners…and bees!

More

A friend at Suncrest Nurseries, Inc., a large wholesale company in Watsonville, responded to this column by saying, “Suncrest does not use neonicotinoid pesticides at all, in any way, shape or form on any of it’s plants !  I think we are the only non-organic nursery to do so !”

The Internet offers much information on bees and threats to their health.  deaths. Here are some interesting websites:

UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab

Genetic Literacy Project: The USDA Study on Bee Deaths

The Genetic Literacy Project supports GMOs, dismisses neonics’ role in bee deaths, and doesn’t like organic foods. The project seems friendly to the chemical industry.

Environmental Protection Agency to Limit Use of Neonics

USDA Release on Honey Production

An increase in honey production is welcome, but it doesn’t mean that bees and other pollinators are safe from pesticides.

Presidential Memorandum Calling for Pollinator Health Strategy

This task force was to report in 180 days. That would have been around  Christmas, 2014. Let’s watch for the report.

List of Pesticides Containing Neonics

Friends of the Earth: Bee-Toxic Pesticides in Garden Center Plants

This paper is a couple years old, but still relevant.

 

More Interesting Than Dirt

Gardeners should refer correctly to the essence of our gardens, which is soil, and avoid calling it “dirt.”

Most soils consist of three groups of particles: sand (the largest in size), (clay (the smallest in size) and silt. The percentages of sand, clay and silt determine the texture of the soil. The best soil for gardening, called loam, has nearly equal parts of sand, silt and clay. Soil with this texture has good balance between retaining and draining moisture.

St another level, garden soil is a living environment, an ecological system, with microorganisms, decaying organic matter, earthworms and other insects. Each of these components contributes to the soil’s habitat for flora and fauna. Living soil involves a vast number of interdependent activities, which combine to create a complex and dynamic environment. These functions are enough to keep soil scientists studying for their lifetimes and motivate gardeners to at least appreciate what is going on under the surface of their gardens.

Kids Pat Down Soil Image

Kids pat down soil around a navel orange tree they planted

By comparison, dirt might contain a good mix of sand, silt and clay, but lacks any of the organic components of good garden soil. Dirt can be regarded as raw material for conversion to garden soil by adding organic matter (compost); this process will provide food for beneficial microorganisms and support the eventual development of the ecological system.

Dirt with a less than ideal mix of sand, silt and clay often can be improved by adding compost. Adding sand to a clayey soil, or clay to a sandy soil, might seem like a good idea, but it very difficult to create a good mix and usually results in something like concrete. Just add compost.

When we think of things that we cannot live without, many people will list sunlight, air and water, but not include soil, which is the essential fourth contributor to life on earth.

With this in mind, soil scientists from around the world have joined to name 2015 as the International Year of Soils, with the goals to educate the public about the importance of healthy soils. The Global Soils Partnership, which includes the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, The Soil Science Society of America, and many other groups, is spearheading these efforts. We are pleased to support this educational initiative.

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The Partnership has identified a theme for the educational activities of each month during 2015. The theme for April is “Soils Clean and Capture Water,” which is timely during California’s current severe drought conditions. As a group, the monthly themes provide an overview of the many ways in which soils support the quality of life on Plant Earth.

  • January – Soils Sustain Life
  • July – Soils are Living
  • February – Soils Support Urban Life
  • August – Soils Support Health
  • March – Soils Support Agriculture
  • September – Soils Protect the Natural Environment
  • April – Soils Clean and Capture Water
  • October – Soils and the Products We Use
  • May – Soils Support Buildings/Infrastructure
  • November – Soils and Climate
  • June – Soils Support Recreation
  • December – Soils, Culture, and People

Each gardener can support the International Year of Soils, in these ways:

All plants respond to good soil!

Poisoning the Pollinators

It’s about time for National Pollinator Week, June 16–23. Check it out at Polllintaor Partnership.

Big agriculture uses many synthetic chemicals. Consumers are concerned by neonicotinoids (“neonics”), which are sprayed on nearly all cornfields, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects this year will cover an area equal nearly the size of California.  Neonics also are sprayed on many garden center plants, and are used on seeds used to grow soy, wheat, cotton, sorghum, peanuts and other crops.

These chemicals persist in soils, travel through plants and poison nectar and pollen. USDA scientists found an average of nine pesticides and fungicides in a sample of plants. The contaminated pollen is eaten by hive bees, which pollinate many of the plants we eat, and many wild bees, which pollinate 90% of all flowering plants.

Neonics do not to kill bees, but seem to reduce the bees’ ability to resist infection by a parasitic fungus and could make bees more susceptible to the parasitic Varroa mite. Researchers at Harvard University also suspect that neonics impair honeybee’s memory, cognition or behavior, and damage their ability to navigate back to their hive.

Increasingly, research indicates that neonics contribute to “Colony Collapse Disorder,” which refers to the sudden decline of entire beehives. During the past five years, some 30% of bees in the United States have simply disappeared. This is about 50% greater than the expected rate.

The Environmental Protection Agency now requires that neonic product labels include a bee hazard icon and directions to minimize use where bees and other pollinators could forage, or where sprays could drift to hives or “pollinator attractive habitats.” Sadly, the EPA’s labels do not address neonic-treated seeds, which also affect bees.

In July of 2013, the Saving America’s Pollinators Act (H.R 2692) was introduced. This bill would suspend the use of neonics until proven safe, and harmless to pollinators. Observers give the bill a zero chance to become law.

Meanwhile, the principal producers of neonics, Bayer and Syngenta, insist that CCD is not caused by their pesticides, but by parasites, pathogens, loss of habitat and other factors. Monsanto, which treats its seeds with neonics, joins in these arguments.

As private and public interests clash, home gardeners can help to protect our pollinators:

  • Buy only certified-organic seeds and plant starts.
  • Eliminate synthetic chemical pesticides from your garden.
  • Plant wildflowers to attract and feed bees.
  • Leave part of your landscape natural for solitary-living native bees.
  • Ask your congressman to support the Saving America’s Pollinators Act.

A world without bees means a world without flowers!

Mote

Several organizations have posted formation about problems for honeybees.. Interested readers can conduct their own search for “Colony Collapse Disorder” or related search terms.  Here are some websites that I have found to be informative.

For more information for residential gardeners, see the brochure, “Bee Safe Gardening Tips,” by Bee Action and Friends of the Earth.

For a n analysis of the position taken by producers of neonics, see Michele Simon’s well-research report, “Follow the Honey: 7 was pesticide companies are spinning the bee crisis tg protect profits.” This report also is distributed by Bee Action and Friends of the Earth.

Another interesting and useful paper from Friends of the Earth, for home gardeners, is
Gardeners Beware: Bee-Toxic Pesticides Found in “Bee-Friendly” Plants Sold at Garden Centers Nationwide. It should not be surprising that garden centers, especially the big box stores, want to eliminate insects on the plants they sell, and use insecticides for that purpose, but it might be surprising to learn that about half the time those insecticides are toxic to honeybees.

Other websites to check out include the following:

Beyond Pesticides This site is about all pollinators, not just honeybees. In particular, see th recent article “Not Longer a BIG Mystery,” which concludes that there is no longer any ambiguity about the impact of synthetic chemicals on bees and other pollinators.

Melissa Garden A great source of information about Plants for Pollinators and information about bees.  (“Melissa” is a Greek word meaning honeybee.)

The Xerces Society An authoritative —and interesting—site for invertebrate conservation, with a focus on bees and butterflies and other threatened invertebrates,