Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Russell Libby: A Robin’s Song

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Fall 2006 \ Libby Editorial

By Russell Libby,
MOFGA Executive Director

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they gone? …. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh. – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Forty years ago Rachel Carson pictured a world without song due to the cumulative effects of DDT. She was portrayed by supporters of DDT as a woman who had no scientific basis for her claims, yet a decade later DDT was no longer sold in the United States and Canada.

In July 2006, a report in Behavioural Brain Research essentially confirmed the central elements of Carson’s thesis. Robin eggs were collected from birds that fed in orchards that had been sprayed with DDT decades ago and from robins that fed in relatively unsprayed habitats. The “orchard” eggs had significantly higher levels of DDT.

The scientists then hatched the eggs and raised the birds for two years. Compared with robins from eggs from environments with low background levels of DDT, the orchard robins could neither sing normal songs nor build normal nests. In competitive situations, they didn’t attract mates or nest successfully. Scientists traced the DDT and its breakdown products and showed that the breakdown products accumulate in and affect the part of the brain that controls singing and mating behavior. Remember, this is 40 years after the orchards were last sprayed with DDT, yet the breakdown products remain in the soil and accumulate in the fat of the egg.

What does this mean for all of us as we each carry our own burden of DDT and other pesticides, along with industrial chemicals, through life? I think it means that we have to renew our efforts to find solutions that remove long-lived, persistent chemicals from every part of the food system. We also have to find ways to remove toxic materials from industrial processes.

This summer the EPA announced that in 2010, the use of the organophosphate azinphos-methyl (Guthion) will be severely restricted. Other organo­phosphates are under review, but it seems clear that the EPA is going to continue to permit use of this class for as long as possible.

Maine has a chance to play a leadership role, to show that food can be grown safely and profitably without the use of pesticides that clearly have long-term effects that have never been completely understood. Most farmers have taken the important step of moving to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), that is, spraying only when the pest is present at levels that require action; but without the research that provides farmers with viable alternatives, progress is very slow.

MOFGA works for safe alternatives to pesticides and looks for opportunities to remove toxic materials from the food system at every turn. Our farmers use systems that don’t lead to long-term accumulation of toxic materials in the soil. We are also actively involved in the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, promoting safer alternatives to unnecessary toxic chemicals in consumer products. Ken Geiser, our Keynote Speaker on Saturday of this year’s Fair, will be talking about exciting initiatives that are happening around the world to promote these alternatives, and efforts to phase out the long-lived toxic chemicals that build up in the food web and in our bodies.

In this election year, we should each be asking gubernatorial and legislative candidates how they hope to move Maine agriculture forward. Part of the solution needs to be a commitment to research that will give farmers ways to get off the pesticide treadmill.

Generations from now, will robins sing a song that we would recognize today? Our decisions today will help answer that question.