Ontario says NO to Pesticides

Ahhh pesticides, a controversial subject at the best of times. Over beers with mates (bearing in mind we are ALL plant dorks) the use (and mis-use) of pesticides is a common topic, one fraught with danger and fought with vigour. So, why all the controversy? Surely we can have a quiet beer and a civilized chat about pesticides and all agree on the pros and cons? Well, we don’t, and a lot of it comes down to the nitty gritty of what a pesticide actually is.

What defines a pesticide? Technically (and I do love to get technical) a pesticide is a substance or mixture of substances used to kill a plant or animal pest. So, this includes herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, miticides and the myriad of other “icides” that greet us in giant hardware stores or granddad’s back shed. Yeah, I know, I was shocked at the definition too!

SGA takes the point of view that integrated pest management is the best approach in the garden, only resorting to low environmental impact pesticides as alternatives when all else fails.

My gut feeling has always been that we can manage without pesticides, or at the very least choose a low environmental impact alternative, a viewpoint that causes mixed responses from my mates at the sticky round table. Mate One, a residential garden maintenance contractor claims he wouldn’t get paid without the use of pesticides. I mean, who is going to pay a maintenance man when the job isn’t top notch – broadleaf weeds and nasty creepy crawlies in palatial backyards do not a happy employer make!

Mate Two, from a crop farming background, reckons he would seriously struggle to maintain viable cropping country without the use of pesticides. All manner of exotic plant and animal species would threaten his livelihood.

Now consider Mate Three, who I refer to as a “Caped Conservation Crusader”! Any greener, and she’d be completely camouflaged in the beautiful bushland where she works. But even she uses pesticides on a daily basis, to fight insidious and ever advancing invasions of weedy plant species that threaten our precious bushland!

But what prompted our most vigorous debate of late was the discussion regarding Ontario province in Canada’s ban on the sale and general use of pesticides in residential / domestic settings. The exclusions include golf courses, farms and forests. This legislation was introduced after intensive lobbying from environmental activists and health professionals.

“Great”, I announced, “finally a government displaying serious environmental leadership”. Who would have thought this decision and subsequent comment would have led to so much discussion?

For one, the lawnmower man uses chemicals in residential landscapes. If he lived in Ontario he would no longer be able to do so. The problem is that not all pesticides are created equal, so even though he may use low environmental impact products he would still be breaking the law. What about bug sprays? They are technically pesticides. What about home made chilli sprays and the like? They are also classified as pesticides… the mind boggles!

My farmer mate reckons that while people may be a bit nervous about the misuse of pesticides, there would be even more concern if we didn’t use them, especially in an agricultural sense. He claims (and I looked it up so it is true) that without pesticides Australia would lose $7000 million per year because there is nothing to combat hideous farming problems like invasive plants, locusts and sheep blowfly!

Then we had some input from the Caped Conservation Crusader, who suggested that pests (of all sorts) are an ecological problem, and therefore require an ecologically sustainable solution. Without the daily use of herbicides, Caped Crusader’s areas of remnant vegetation would be lost forever under a mountain of weeds… mostly garden escapees! Amazingly, she is opposed to the ban in Ontario, suggesting that the use of backyard herbicides may prevent the problem of invasive plants hopping back fences! I was surprised, but impressed at the same time (it may have been the third beer or my utter shock at my green mate calling for herbicide use in backyards).

Another round of beer, and the following was decided. We like, and dislike pesticides… and here’s why:

Arguments for using pesticides:

  • Cost effectiveness – pesticides are an economical way of controlling issues, especially the large-scale stuff.
  • Timeliness and flexibility – by selecting the best product for the situation, pests can be managed quickly and effectively, saving a great deal more chemical application in the future.
  • Prevention of problems – preventing weeds in gardens, lawns and large scale landscapes, preventing the spread of pests.
  • Protection of pets and humans. Without chemicals the treatment of spiders, cockroaches, and fleas would be tricky.
  • Protection of the environment. If no chemicals were available to control environmental pests like noxious weeds, feral animals etc., our environment would suffer very badly. Using herbicides to control crop weeds reduces the need for cultivation, thus reducing land degradation.

Why we don’t like pesticides:

  • Reduction of beneficial species. Non-target organisms, including predators and parasites of pests, can also be affected by pesticides. This results in changes to natural systems and biological balances. Think of the bees, won’t someone think of the bees!!
  • Drift of sprays and vapour during application is just plain bad, and can cause untold damage in the general environment.
  • Environmental pollution from careless application and runoff can result in wildlife and fish losses.
  • Ground water contamination by leached chemicals can occur in high use areas if persistent products are used.
  • Resistance to the pesticide used can develop in target pests due to overuse and/or incorrect use of the chemical.
  • Poisoning hazards and other health issues to operators can occur through excessive exposure if safe handling procedures are not followed and protective clothing not worn.
  • Other possible health effects due to indiscriminate use of chemicals can be a serious concern.

So after vigorous debate, and a few more rounds of beer, we came to the following conclusions. One, we all need to get out a bit more (or at least find something else to talk about). Secondly, pesticide use in any setting needs to be seriously assessed before wanton application occurs. We came up with the following list of behaviours that we all need to undertake before and while using pesticides. These apply across the board, whether the application be horticultural, residential, agricultural or ecological.

  • Consider safe, non-chemical alternatives to pest control, including hand-weeding, mulching, biological controls, cultivation, garden bed rotation, mowing and slashing, growing pest repellent plants and so on.
  • Choose a low environmental impact pesticide (SGA 6 star rated).
  • Read and understand the label, taking special note of the rate of application and the safety directions.
  • Make sure the chemical is designed to control the pest you are using it against.
  • Always prepare and apply the chemical according to the manufacturer’s instructions given on the label.
  • Do not spray under adverse weather conditions, e.g. on windy days (to avoid off-target damage).
  • Be particularly careful when using chemicals near waterways or stormwater drains.
  • Take appropriate personal safety precautions.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting all pesticides are evil, nor I am standing on my happy little soapbox singing the praises of chemical control. What I reckon though is that they do have their place, and, while my mates and I agree to disagree on a number of pesticide related issues, there is one thing we are all united on: If they must be used, choose a pesticide from the 6 star range listed on https://www.sgaonline.org.au/pesticide-use/