Thursday, August 20, 2015

Silent Spring #6-The Challenge

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz
On the left: Mustard greens left to flower for beneficials.
Upper right: Harvest lane planted with rye & clover.
Lower right: Bumblebee on flowering vetch.
Well, here we are folks—at the end of our Silent Spring series. As you look back and reflect on what we’ve done here—the topics we’ve explored and the questions we’ve asked—I hope that you feel two things: empowerment and motivation. Empowerment in the sense that, if we’ve done our jobs correctly, you are walking away with an arsenal of knowledge and understanding which you can further develop as you continue to engage with these issues. And motivation because if you’re like me, you’ll be thinking of ways in which you can actively use what you’ve learned as a means of bringing about positive change. With this in mind, I want to use this space to share examples of a few ways in which our fellow humans have reacted to the widespread use of harmful pesticides. I’ll also suggest a number of things you and I can do in our own individual capacities in confronting these issues head-on.

Let’s look first to Portland, Oregon. For those of you familiar with Portland’s progressiveness (and perhaps the show Portlandia), it may not come as a surprise that in April 2015, the City Council voted unanimously to ban the use of neonic pesticides. In Portland—as remains the case in many hundreds of cities across the country—city parks, athletic fields, roadsides and other publicly shared green spaces were regularly treated with neonics, glyphosate and other pesticides. Just as residents were growing more and more concerned, the Oregon Department of Agriculture brought to the fore data they had been collecting over the past two years. Basically, they were able to directly link several large-scale bee death incidents to the application of neonics on public spaces. As such, when the ordinance banning neonics was put forward, it was categorized as a “public health issue requiring emergency action” (Anderson, 2015). Now, as the ban goes into effect, Portland’s parks are working to develop a pest management plan—a step intended to demonstrate to the general public that “successful pest management is possible with practices that protect bees and other pollinators” (Reuters, 2015a; Anderson, 2015).

In passing this ordinance, Portland joins eight other U.S. cities, including Spokane, Washington and Shorewood, Minnesota, which enacted their own bans in years previous. Meanwhile, our neighbor to the north has set forth its own inspiring example. Three Canadian provinces—Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick—have banned the use of cosmetic pesticides on lawns, citing this law as a means of safeguarding humans, animal life and the environment from unnecessary exposures to harmful chemicals (David Suzuki Foundation, 2009). As the most commonly used insecticide in the world, neonics are not confined to agriculture. Rather, they are equally popular—and are applied at a much higher rate—in urban, non-agricultural settings (City of Boulder Colorado, 2015). Yards, trees, flowers and shrubs are often treated with neonics, some of which have a half-life as high as three years (Hunt & Krupke, 2012). Even the plants you purchase from nurseries and home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot are likely to have been grown from or treated with neonics (Keim, 2014). Primarily in response to public pressure, both of these stores have recently begun to explore the feasibility of removing neonics from their business operations (Reuters, 2015b).
Though all of the above actions are a step in the right direction, we don’t have to look too hard to see that politics and loopholes often go hand-in-hand. For instance, Portland’s ban allows for neonics to remain in use on a site-by-site basis, while Ontario’s ban continues to permit the use of glyphosate in certain circumstances. Lowe’s, although it has committed to eliminating neonics by 2019, has included the caveat that this will occur “as suitable alternatives become available” (Reuters, 2015b). Considering this and also referring back to last week’s conversation on the precautionary principle, we should acknowledge the very real possibility that our government is not going to act fast enough in addressing the growing use of and serious implications tied to these harmful pesticides. Therefore, it is people like you and I—in conjunction with conservation groups and other concerned actors—that are likely going to be the ones to accomplish real and lasting change.

Field Road Pollinator Habitat
As we consider what we can do in our day-to-day activities and throughout our communities, it is important to understand that we’re not alone in this. As trailblazing organizations like the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the IPM Practitioner fight to protect pollinators and other beneficials, they’re also putting their time and energy into empowering us to serve as environmental stewards. In addition to their many opportunities for more formal involvement, the Xerces Society offers important reference publications that you can access from the convenience of your kitchen table. For instance, their guide on pollinator plants outlines which are among the best suited to our specific region of the country. As members of the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, which was started in response to the White House’s National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, they also outline the value that you can contribute through something as simple as a window or patio planter. The IPM Practitioner, on the other hand, publishes a quarterly that discusses various ways in which to address a wide number of pests—ranging from mice and roaches to carpenter ants—in a chemical-free manner.

We must also consider the power that we have as consumers. “Voting with your dollar” is a phrase that has been around for a while, but it remains an action that carries great weight. Much as we support farms like Harmony Valley through our organic food purchases, we can do the same in our home and garden purchases. As you shop, be discerning—read labels, ask questions, and do your best to make sure your purchases align with your principles. Don’t be afraid to take a stand—whether that be through putting a “Pesticide Free” sign up in your yard or, as a group of women did in Stoughton, Wisconsin, publicly organizing and drawing attention to the way your city deals with weed management (Livick, 2013).

As we draw our formal conversation to a close, I want to briefly return to Quarles, who has done incredibly important work around further demonstrating the importance of sustainable, chemical-free agriculture in the age of pesticides. Despite the rather serious dilemma in which we find ourselves, Quarles (2008, p.13) encourages us to regard this not as a cause for doom and despair, but as “an opportunity for change.” And so, with this in mind, Richard, Andrea and I—along with the rest of the Harmony Valley Farm family—want to pose to you a challenge. Throughout this next year, we’d like to ask you to share with us the ways in which you have joined us in this effort. Send your stories and share your photographs. Every action counts, no matter how small. In one year’s time, we’ll take a moment to share these wonderful actions as we reflect on what we’ve collectively accomplished as a Harmony Valley Farm community and as stewards of the earth.


Anderson, J. (2015, April 1). Portland bans ‘neonicotinoid’ pesticide. Portland Tribune. Retrieved from

City of Boulder Colorado. (2015). Protecting pollinators. Retrieved from

David Suzuki Foundation. (2009, March 4). Ontario protects health and the environment through pesticide ban [Press release]. Retrieved from

Hunt, G., & Krupke, C. (2012). Neonicotinoid seed treatments and honey bee health. American Bee Journal. Retrieved from

Keim, B. (2014). How your bee-friendly garden may actually be killing bees. Wired. Retrieved from

Livick, B. (2013, April 8). Residents push city to stop using toxic chemicals in local parks. Connect Stoughton. Retrieved from

Quarles, W. (2008). Protecting native bees and other pollinators. IPM Practitioner: Monitoring the Field of Pest Management, 24(1-4), 4-13.

Reuters. (2015a, April 1). Portland bans neonicotinoid insecticides on city lands to protect declining honey bees. HuffPost Green. Retreived from

Reuters. (2015b, April 9). Lowe’s to stop selling neonicotinoid pesticides that may be harmful to bees. HuffPost Green. Retrieved from

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