Nurturing Native Wildlife in Your Landscape Without Hazardous Chemicals

December 1, 2023

Saturday, September 23, 2023 at the Common Ground Country Fair

Professional horticulturalist Chip Osborne started using pesticides in the 1970s, when the pesticide industry was just over 20 years old. “Twenty-five years of my business, I was up to my elbows in pesticides,” said Osborne. “We buttoned up our collars, put on some glasses, a little respirator, and then went into the greenhouse.” His experience with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides routinely used in land care and horticulture led him to believe there was a safer way to grow plants.

“I realized something was wrong,” he told the crowd gathered at MOFGA’s 27th Public Policy Teach-In, moderated by former MOFGA executive director Nancy Ross, at the Common Ground Country Fair on Saturday, September 23. As part of a panel presentation, called “Nurturing Native Wildlife in Your Landscape Without Hazardous Chemicals,” Osborne explained that he saw his shift from a chemical-intensive, symptom-driven approach to an organic, soil-based approach as being critical for protecting the environment and human health. As the president of Osborne Organics, LLC, he now works with school districts, municipalities, and colleges and universities around the country to institutionalize policy, because, he said, regulation “is basically under the thumb of industry.” He added, “I’ve been fortunate enough to go to the EPA in Washington as a board member with Beyond Pesticides several times over the last 10 years. And they actually told us that they believe they have an obligation to provide economic benefit to the registrant. That’s the chemical company.”

Shifting From Hazardous Chemicals

The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) was written in 1947, with a revision in 1972 to require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assess potential risks that pesticides pose to humans, the environment and wildlife. “We are operating in 2023 with legislation that has been in place since 1972 with little or no change,” said Osborne.

Testing, he continued, is conducted by the manufacturer and assesses acute exposure on laboratory animals, with results extrapolated to a 150-pound human. “New science — medical science and the scientific community — are determining that products that the EPA says are low-risk at high doses are actually found to be high-risk at low doses,” he said. “That’s what is on our children’s soccer fields.”

He also expressed concern with the lack of transparency regarding pesticide formulations. The so-called “active ingredient” that targets the pest — whether it’s a grub disturbing turfgrass, a Japanese beetle defiling an ornamental rose or aphids munching on salad greens — makes up a rather small percentage of the product: about 2%. The remaining 98%, the “inert ingredients,” are not disclosed. These ingredients are not tested in formulation with the active ingredient for human health effects. What’s more, landscape contractors often use three-way chemical combinations — chemical A plus chemical B plus chemical C — and Osborne stresses that those pairings are also not regularly tested. “All that’s been tested is 2%, 2%, 2%,” he said.

Osborne has been working with MOFGA to help the town of Cape Elizabeth pass a pesticide ordinance, to become one of more than 30 towns in the state with stricter regulations around pesticide use. Under proposed ordinances, he advocates that only two different types of pesticide products can be used: those that fall under the minimum-risk category exempt from FIFRA regulation, or those that are listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) for use in certified organic operations under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While synthetic and organic pesticides are both designed to kill pests, organic pesticides are generally not associated with adverse long-term human health impacts.

Osborne was quick to note that he is not in favor of a product swap, and instead works to cultivate a healthy biologically active soil environment. Soil testing is the basis for all inputs, whether he’s working on eliminating crabgrass in a ballfield or a backyard. While organic management is easily as effective as conventional approaches to curating a lush green lawn, Osborne said this aesthetic expectation — which was marketed by industry in the 1950s to sell products — is part of the problem. “There’s absolutely too much grass in the world,” said Osborne. “Native plantings should be the focus of the future.”

Practical Steps to Take at Home

Sharon Turner, another panelist, agreed. “The more diversity we plant the better, and yes, ideally, the more native plants we plant the better,” said Turner, shortly after taking the mic from Osborne. Along with her son, Eli Berry, Turner owns and operates Crystal Lake Farm & Nursery in Washington, Maine. The nursery plants they cultivate are mostly natives, and are selected with birds, bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects in mind.

Turner recommends a 70-30 split, native to non-native plants, in landscape design. “There are enough asters and goldenrod in the world,” joked Turner. “Try to have as many natives as possible in your landscape and then go ahead and play with other things.” However, she warned that it’s important to know where your plants are coming from and how they’ve been grown. Many native plants sold in big-box stores may have been treated with conventional pesticides, including a particularly toxic class called neonicotinoids. “It’s death for bees,” she said. “We’re trying to buy something native that’s doing something good, but it’s killing things and damaging things at the same time. And it’s all in the interest of the chemical companies.”

Turner also cautioned against planting cultivars, which may be able to cross-pollinate with natives, mixing up genetics. Turner mentioned winterberry, with its distinctive red berries often used for decorations, as an example. “The worst thing that I heard recently was that industry has bred — it’s awful — winterberry with berries that hang on so birds won’t eat them, so we can enjoy them,” said Turner.

Educating yourself is key, said Turner, who offers gardening and design classes, as well as land-use consultation. Some of her favorite resources include the cooperative extension and Native Plant Trust, a plant conservation organization in Massachusetts.

Policy Actions

Education, combined with health concerns and market forces, can drive change, but you absolutely have to have policy action, said Heather Spalding, the third and final panelist to speak at the teach-in. As MOFGA’s deputy director and senior policy director, Spalding has worked on policy in D.C. and Augusta, and with communities on the municipal level. Over the years, toxics and promoting safer alternatives, including for pesticides, has been a focus for Spalding and MOFGA. “As Chip was talking about, we really need a paradigm shift on how pesticides and chemicals are created, how they’re tested, how they’re regulated, how they’re released on the market,” she said.

In recent years, Maine has passed several strong pesticide policies, including a ban on the chemical insecticide chlorpyriphos for all uses — a stronger ban than the EPA established — and a restriction on neonicotinoids. Four of the most common “neonics” can now only be used by licensed applicators and cannot be used for general landscaping. On school grounds, the use of dicamba and glyphosate (the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup) has also been banned.

Another important piece of legislation stipulates that the two members of the Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC) appointed to represent the public cannot have a conflict of interest. And last year a law was passed requiring pesticides sales data to be collected online to share with the public. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Spalding.

At the national level, Spalding has been working against attempts to preempt local control, in part to protect the different ordinances in Maine to ban pesticides and promote organic land care. Of particular concern are two bills that could go through as part of the next Farm Bill: the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act and the Agricultural Labeling Uniformity Act.

When it comes to toxics, Spalding advocates for an approach based on the precautionary principle. “Is there a problem that needs to be addressed? Can that problem be addressed with organic land-care principles?” Reaching for chemicals should be an absolute last resort, she said. And Maine’s communities should be able to work to promote safer land management.

The recent discovery of widespread contamination of land and water by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) throughout Maine underscores the importance of this approach for Spalding. “Now we recognize that PFAS, which is a very, very toxic class of chemicals, is in all of our bodies. It’s in the water we drink, it’s in the soil, it’s all over the globe. We should not have allowed that to happen,” said Spalding.

She is hopeful that elected officials are starting to understand the importance of the precautionary principle — and of organic. “Organic is not a niche, it is the future,” said Spalding. “We have to continue to work with our elected officials to encourage them to enact really strict policies and incentives to embrace organic land care.”

-Holli Cederholm

You can watch the teach-in in its entirety on MOFGA’s YouTube channel.

This article was originally published in the winter 2023-24 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

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