Clinging to big chem

My CSA: no spraying here
My CSA: no spraying here

Glyphosate and neonics—herbicides and pesticides contested as benign by most of big ag and big gardening— were in the news again. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has stated that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans; its evidence came from human agricultural exposure as well as from lab and cell studies. This is the latest in a series of studies that indicate harm of some kind—but each is always disputed as soon as it appears.

Neonics (or neonicotinoids) have been in the crosshairs for a while; it’s under dispute whether they cause harm to honeybees. Pick your study on that one—there are many. I tend to go along with this op-ed, particularly its last line: “absence of evidence does not always mean evidence of absence.”

There are angry debates aplenty over all this, including a famous televised incident where a Monsanto lobbyist refused to drink a glass of Round-Up. As for the bees, a different culprit for CCD emerges on a regular basis. These compounds are widely used, however; the US gets through 280 million pounds of glysophate a year, and even if you avoid neonic-containing sprays, they may already be present in plants from big commercial growers. (Home Depot is now labeling its neonic-treated plants.)

It would be nice if those who can’t get along without these sprays could explore safe alternatives. But the culture of spraying is engrained and is still vehemently defended by many. I’m pretty sure that if I did use glyphosate—which I never have—I’d likely be fine. But given everything I’ve read so far, I do not find this soothing. It’s the big commercial uses that pose the biggest risk, and I can’t support that by buying it. Anyway, mechanical means are preferable to chemical means in gardening situations (and most others).

Sadly, how people line up on this too often depends on the strength of their connections to the big green industries. And those connections run deeply through the culture.

P.S. Happy birthday, Susan!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. The sentence the reads “Anyway, mechanical means are preferable to chemical means in gardening situations (and most others).” ought to have been presented for what it is : the opinion of the writer. It does not reflect a consensus of all gardeners everywhere. Each of us chooses a method of weed control that works best for both one’s gardening conditions and one’s conscience.

    • Yes, everyone does do what they think best. And I think a blog post in the first person (many uses of the word “I”) which ends in a birthday wish can easily be interpreted as an opinion piece.

  2. As if anyone is surprised to what lenghts companies will go to defend profit? If it is not illegal is ok is the mantra, you can find this in every area. When in doubt proceed with caution seems to have no bearing. Just who gave us the right as amateur gardeners to sacrifice nature for our sense of order? When it comes to producing food there is at least that, we only strive for aesthetics…

    • It can certainly be argued that growing food has a strong moral justification. But when a necessary and therefore morally justifiable activity are turned over to snakes in suits to run, then contrasting it to an attempt by individuals to make the world a prettier place may have less …substance. Especially when many of those individual gardeners also are actively trying to protect native species, grow healthy food, soothe troubled minds, etc.

  3. Expand this topic/post into an article worthy of, perhaps, WSJ.

    Include types of homeowners who like to garden/don’t like to garden, their garden knowledge, amount of time available to garden, physical ability to garden, & their methods.

    Time, time, time.

    Most people, with homes, do not garden. Fine. Easier to hire mow-blow-chem/fert-go. If thrifty, easier for them to buy chemicals to control ‘weeds’.

    At the front end, homeowners, mostly, are using chemicals/fert toxic to soil, groundwater, insects, wildlife, themselves.

    Too few have the basic knowledge to know their fertilizers, weed killers are harmful to the above list.

    Blogs about gardening without chemicals, yours/mine, are poetry. You know, the cliche, poets are the canary in the coal mine.

    When lecturing in a coal town, years ago, it was sad seeing how small the old town was, how huge the churches. The ‘people’, put their money into their churches. Too bad they did not put it into law firms. Big coal, indifferent to the poverty, death, malnutrition, etc….of its workers/their families. I ‘saw’ this history. They lived it and did not.

    Garden & Be Well, XO T

    • I see this in my neighborhood – my neighbors spray their mulch piles until I call it the “nothing grows here” aesthetic. Where is the beauty in a barren mulch pile that surrounds a single shrub? But if you asked my neighbors to give up their Round-up, they wouldn’t know what to do. They have no idea what to do with their outdoor space except mow, blow, and use pesticides/synthetic fertilizers. It’s sad, because it’s a nice neighborhood, but to my eye it looks desolate.

  4. Watch the video on youtube where the asshole lobbyist proclaiming the safety of phosphorylate is given a taste of his own medicine. After a tirade on it’s safety for public use, a reporter gave him a glass of water with phosphorylate in it.

    He refused to drink it…

    “I’m not stupid”

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