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Pesticide Season Is Upon Us - May 28, 2017

Pesticide Season Is Upon Us

Spring has more than sprung on the Delmarva Peninsula. Everything we stuck into the ground with high hopes at the end of March is starting to become real flesh and blood… or at least, water and cellulose. But there are plenty of things we did not plant that are growing too; crab grass in our lawns, creeping Charlie skulking in our vegetable beds, and dandelions just about everywhere, each one a blemish on the picture-perfect backyard we imagined in winter. Enemies from the soil are quickly joined by insect troops; aphids, Japanese beetles, and cabbage loopers are all getting ready to lay siege. To defend your turf, you will have to turn to chemical warfare. Spring isn’t just growing season anymore; it’s also pesticide season.

                One cannot discuss pesticides in the United States without mentioning Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. In 1962, Carson first published what would become the crux of a paradigm shift of American environmental policy. The book outlined major issues with America’s pesticide industry by painting a grim caricature of the future; a spring season without buzzing bees and chirping birds, silenced by the hubris of negligent pesticide use. Suddenly, (and with much warning), the solution to pollution was no longer just dilution, and pesticides were no longer innocent until proven guilty. In the following decades, pesticide production and use became a far more regulated and safer endeavor, thanks in part to Carson’s Magnum Opus.

                Today, the precautionary approach reigns supreme. In the cases of direct human health effects, pesticides are no longer presumed innocent, predominantly by virtue of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA regulates the use of pesticides on food products, largely through the rigorous standards of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA). This piece of legislation is the American consumer’s first line of defense, a sort of monitoring gauntlet that pesticides must pass through in order to be used on food crops. In this way, the FQPA helps ensure the safety and health of Americans at the grocery store: when you bite into an apple, the FQPA makes sure whatever was sprayed on it won’t bite back.

                While the direct protection of human health against pesticides has improved in leaps and bounds, the health of the environment still suffers from their use. Heavy treatment of pesticides has been linked to a myriad of environmental degradations; from mass deaths of non-target species, to loss of soil fertility, and to contamination of surface and groundwater. In 2010, the Chesapeake Bay Program reported that 72% of the Bay’s tidal-water areas are partially or fully impaired as a result of toxic contaminants.

                Often Maryland’s farmers receive the brunt of the blame for these effects, and it is true that agriculture accounts for around 75% of all pesticide use. However, a 1998 study by the USGS found that urban drainage basins in the Mid-Atlantic Region had higher levels of insecticide than agricultural areas. If the amounts of pesticides applied in these areas are so much lower, how is this possible? The key is use and overuse; runoff rates in urban areas are consistently far higher than in agricultural settings. . At the highest, pesticide runoff from agricultural land is estimated at around 2.4% (so, for every 100 pounds of pesticide applied, 2.4 pounds are washed into local waterways). In contrast, urban pesticide runoff has been estimated as high as 15%! When farmers apply pesticides to their fields they follow, and are often incentivized to follow, Best Management Practices (BMP’s) and Integrated Pest Management strategies (IPM’s). Practices like planting vegetated buffer zones, calculating exact need per acre, applying during the most efficient times and weather patterns, and completing pesticide application trainings all help to safeguard the environment and improve the farmer’s bottom line.  Contradicting this careful management plan is the average homeowner who applies pesticides more frequently and with far less training or knowledge of pesticide safety procedures. Homeowners in urban and suburban areas consistently apply too much pesticide, apply 10-20 times more often than farmers, and are not incentivized to follow BMP’s. Lawmakers frequently take this into account; in fact, recent legislation in Maryland banned general consumer use of Neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to major deaths of honeybees when improperly applied.

                This may sound like an insult, but it is really a call to action. As BMP’s and IPM’s for farmers continue to improve and regulation of pesticides before they hit the market becomes tighter, the weakest link in pesticide environmental degradation remains us, the average backyard sprayers. As such, this is a problem you can fix in your own backyard. Follow the use and disposal directions when applying pesticides. Use them sparingly, and never spray if rain or wind is in the forecast. Try environmentally friendly alternatives, such as Bt insecticides or insecticidal soaps. Plant native trees and garden plants that are suited to this environment and don’t need chemical coddling. Or, if you’re really brave, try going totally pesticide-free. Most importantly, think before you spray. Unlike the farmer, whose livelihood (and our next meal) depends on producing a healthy crop, your Kentucky bluegrass lawn is ecologically and economically useless. Is your perfectly manicured turf worth the money and time you put into it? Is it worth the environmental damage you cause?

                For more environmentally friendly alternatives, tips for your own backyard, and information on how your actions affect your watershed, request a “Homeowner’s Guide to the Maryland Coastal Bays” from the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. Send an email to mcbp@mdcoastalbays.org.

Simons is a seasonal scientist with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 



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