Fletcher: Polluted logic plagues pesticide bylaws

Fletcher: Polluted logic plagues pesticide bylaws

Silent Spring prejudice against ‘synthetic chemicals’ still rules

Chances are your community has a bylaw that restricts the use of “chemical” pesticides on public and private lands, including your lawn and garden.

I’ll use the District of Saanich bylaw as an example of what environmentally conscious B.C. municipal governments impose on their citizens. Passed in 2010, this 10-page bylaw includes most of the modern notions about what is good and bad in managing plants and their pests. And much of it is politically correct rubbish.

The district’s web page lists a sprinkling of permitted pesticides, including vinegar, corn gluten meal, insecticidal or herbicidal soaps and mineral oils. It includes advice on making your lawn smaller because “no mowing means no lawnmowers.” In short, it is a hippie’s dream of a low-technology, natural world.

It gives a hit list of restricted pesticides, led of course by glyphosate (Roundup) and 2,4-D (Weed ’n’ Feed or Killex are common brands). The bylaw defines restricted pesticides in general as “traditional products containing synthetic chemicals.”

The text of the bylaw invokes the “precautionary principle,” which means actual evidence of harm isn’t necessary for restrictions to be imposed. It includes strict descriptions of signs to be posted for any allowable application, and fines up to $10,000 for violating the detailed terms.

The bylaw warns of the allegedly urgent need to reduce the “cumulative chemical load” in the natural environment. Setting aside the obvious point that all matter in the known universe is made of chemicals, one of the key features of products like Roundup is that they break down quickly.

This is why glyphosate was re-licensed in November for continued use in the European Union, where cultural battles over “chemicals” make B.C.’s precious protests seem calm and reasonable. This issue resonates with folks who buy homeopathic remedies containing zero active ingredient, or believe they need an occasional “cleanse” to aid their kidney and liver function.

The idea that “synthetic chemicals” are by definition the problem is one of the most damaging myths. Do you recall the most recent contaminated food scare? Romaine lettuce from California was pulled off store shelves after dozens of people became ill and two died after eating it in December.

The culprit in this case was e. coli, which Health Canada defines as bacteria that “live naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals.” Leafy greens can be contaminated by soil, inadequately composted manure, or improper handling and storing after harvest.

The last time I wrote on this topic, a reader demanded to know whether I have read Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s iconic anti-DDT book that is credited with sparking the modern environmental movement. I’ll come clean. No, I haven’t read this 55-year-old book, which was quietly but thoroughly debunked after decades of uncritical public and media belief.

That religious faith changed with a 2012 critique by 11 scientific authors, called Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson. It destroys many of her key conclusions, particularly the title’s claim that DDT was behind a collapse of American bird populations.

“Far from being on the verge of collapse, American bird populations were, by and large, increasing at the time of Silent Spring’s publication,” the authors write. “Although Carson was active in the Audubon Society, she ignored Audubon’s annual bird count, which had long been the best single source on bird population.”

Carson also ignored the millions of lives saved from malaria death by DDT, misrepresented rising cancer deaths that were mainly due to smoking and people living longer, and overstated the safety and effectiveness of “natural” pest control using predator insects.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press.

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