Commentary: The Gray-haired Gardener's Opinion
Ian E. M. Donovan
Author's note. I planted radishes as a four-year-old and worked in a florist's greenhouse during high school. Chemicals in the garden were not part of my experience. As I got older, I began my own garden where I avoided chemical use. Long after my twenty-six years' service in the military, including, Vietnam, I was diagnosed with a surprise case of metastatic prostate cancer. Today the Department of Veterans Services classifies me as 100 percent disabled. Why was I exposed to Agent Orange/Dioxin poisoning? This article reflects an attempt by me to deflect my anger.
Bug Sprays, Weed Killers & People
This article is about our use and misuse of agricultural chemicals and their potential for our gardens. Some of what I have to say may be disconcerting to you, so if discomfort is not your cup of tea today, find a more pleasant diversion. Don't ruin your day!
By the 1940s, researchers in the burgeoning organic chemistry field began developing marvelous potions that improved agricultural crop yields while reducing labor costs. We saw pictures of refugees in war-ravaged countries being deloused with the new DDT pesticide powder. By the late 1950s, we were greening lawns of our new homes with a quick acting turf fertilizer that contained 2,4-D herbicide. No more hand weeding for us. Dandelions, plantains, and chickweed would be banished from our smooth green carpet. Suburban gardening was good and getting better. We could also get rid of that nasty nicotine pesticide which we mixed to spray on our roses and vegetables. The dandelion digger rusted on the shelf in the garage. Trolleys, too, were almost extinct and commuter rail was not far behind. We didn't need them anyway, since cars were good and gasoline was cheap.
Then in 1962 we read The Silent Spring1 and began to think that maybe there was a problem, most likely elsewhere but not around us. Strange reports began appearing in scientific journals and in our newspapers, however, about deformed fish, massive fish kills, and mysterious algae blooms. Bugs were disappearing. Birds were having trouble bringing the next generation to life in the wild. But it was not our problem.
For most of the 1960s and first half of the 1970s we were preoccupied with a distant war in Vietnam. Little noticed or reported was the chemical weed killer assault on the jungle canopy to deny the enemy vegetative cover through which he could move with impunity, to deny him his food supplies, and to protect our friendly bases. This assault on nature in Vietnam began in 1962 and continued into 1971.
The military tested fourteen weed killer mixes in Southeast Asia in addition to Agent Orange. But it was the most prolifically used herbicide - an estimated 21+ million gallons of Agent Orange alone.2 The product, a 50-50 mix of the defoliants 2,4-D and 2,4,5- T, was often used undiluted at six to twenty-five times civilian use concentrations! (If the label concentrations were good, more was better. Right?) An unintended consequence of the manufacturing process was that TCDD, alias Dioxin, contaminated the 2,4,5-T. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals known.
Organic chemicals defoliated the jungle, as well as kept our lawns weed and insect free. Sure, spray the 2,4-D too close to the dogwood or the perennial bed and Poof!
After Vietnam in the 1970s, we heard about new organic chemical compounds that were even safer and easier to use. Just follow the label instructions carefully the manufacturers said. Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and other giant agrichemical firms prospered as farmers became more productive and we gardeners enjoyed our gardens again. We needed no more smelly citronella to keep the mosquitoes away, either. We now have Deet.
The Silent Spring remained in the popular literature of many gardeners, environmentalists, and wildlife advocates.
Soon, we learned of environmentally friendly organics and fertilizers. The labels prepared to government standards said so. OK, Bugs, look out! Our local garden center's shelves were well stocked with these benign chemicals that did this and that about the garden. So much help, so safe, and so expensive.
In the 1980s and 1990s we found that there was a growing movement to reexamine the old farm and garden cultural techniques and equally old, inorganic chemicals to attack the bugs and weeds. It just was a bit more labor intensive. We learned about Integrated Pest ManagementIPM. Now we really understood how and when we should apply pesticides. Fertilizers made from more natural ingredients appeared. Because they were slower acting, we had to think more carefully about how and when we applied them. But they were more environmentally friendly. Maybe we just needed to breed plants that showed more resistance to fungi and insect pests. We refined our cultural techniques to work more in harmony with our garden situation, and thereby use fewer toxic chemicals.
We also learned in the 1980s and 1990s about a mysterious menu of maladies and birth defects that followed the weed killer-cum-Dioxin trail. They appeared among South Koreans who live near their DMZ, among ROK and Australian Army veterans who supported US Forces in Vietnam, among civilians who lived near a leaky New Zealand agrichemical plant, and among the indigenous populations of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Maladies appeared among our own Vietnam veterans, too. But our government, including their advocate the Department of Veterans Affairs, didn't want to recognize such possibilities. Key members of Congress said, "Wait a minute!" The Secretary appointed as a Special Assistant a creative leader of impeccable credentials to review the matter and report back. Former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Zumwalt, who also had lost a Vietnam veteran son to the maladies, reported the truth in no uncertain terms. Policies were changed to recognize and compensate American Vietnam veteran victims of the Dioxin poison disaster, but only after a big push by the victims and the Congress. Had the government's science been bad? Had someone shaded the statistics? Read the report.3 By the 1990s, agribusiness had introduced major economic crops modified to be resistant to the herbicide Glyphosate (Roundup) and to specific insect pests. Weed killer Triclopyr came into vogue. Whew. Progress. A small mail order catalog company started selling all kinds of pesticides, fertilizers, and paraphernalia for gardeners who wanted to break the organic chemical habit. In fact, they prospered in the typical American entrepreneurial mode.4
What will be the next popular wave in our learning to become better gardeners? How will we control the problems of Phytophthora root rot among our Ericaceae, particularly when it is in the soil of the plants we bring into the garden? One promising product now on the market seems to have an instant, if not residual, effect.5 Less toxic to people, too.
The Silent Spring is now a classic, still in print, with the Fortieth Anniversary edition published in October 2002. How many years has it been before we recognized that we have to learn more about our earth and plants to be sensitive gardeners? I figure about fifty-five years, at least. I recall that my English mother subscribed to Organic Gardening magazine in the 1940s to find a better control for the bugs on her roses than hand picking or nicotine. Have a nice day!
1 Rachel Carson. 2002. The Silent Spring. NY: Houghton-Mifflin. Hardcover & paperback.
2 A Web search on "Agent Orange" turned up an incredible number of information sources. For an introductory capsule example, see URL http://www.lewispublishing.com/orange.htm. See also: Stellman, J. M., et al. "The Extent and Patterns of Usage of Agent Orange and Other Herbicides in Vietnam". Nature. April 17, 2003. p.681.
3 See: Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Report To the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs on the Association Between Adverse Health Effects and Exposure To Agent Orange. May 5, 1990. The 32-page report may be printed from URL http://www.gulfwarvets.com/ao.html for clear reading. The report's findings are a shocking and sad commentary on how data and policy had been manipulated to achieve predetermined objectives.
4 See URL http://www.gardensalive.com.
5 See URL http://biosafesystems.com. ZeroTol is an inorganic hydrogen peroxide oxidizer.
The Gray-haired Gardener's opinions are not those of the ARS Massachusetts Chapter or the greater American Rhododendron Society.