We all embrace customs, some silly and small, some big and important. Summer barbecues. 4th of July parades. The Superbowl party. Pumpkin pie. An aversion to the metric system. Ours is a culture with many traditions, some born of social habit, others shaped by our response to technological innovation. All of them contribute… something… to the patterns of civilized life in society and by now we automatically, unconsciously accept these habits as good. But that’s not good. Some customs, by intense over-practice, outgrow their benefit. Here’s one screaming for modification: our vast over use of pesticides. The United States accounts for roughly 22% of all pesticide use worldwide and an astounding 78 million households apply nearly 66 million pounds of these chemicals annually. And it’s not just for suburban turf care. It includes the fungicides that keep our ornamentals glossy, herbicides that so easily eliminate unwanted weeds, and the insecticides that terminate the insects we often unfairly judge as loathsome. We’ve been taught that a perfectly lush lawn flanked by pristine shrubbery is a more essential part of the American dream than the white picket fence. And these ideas can be passed from generation to generation.
My family is a perfect example. My grandparents, who immigrated to Hawaii from Japan, used pesticides on their taro crops. My mom remembers her dad mixing batches of chemicals and strapping a large vessel of the mystery solution onto his back before heading out into the fields. Later, my mother, who ran an orchid business, liberally doused pesticides on her exotic flowers. And because Hawaii is the perfect host not only for mosquitoes but also for every other creepy crawler in tropical paradise, I, in turn, learned to keep a can of Raid at the ready and didn’t think twice to aim and spray. We do what we’ve learned.
Rarely do we question our patterns of behavior. Could these habits be outdated? My astute husband reminded me over and over again that pesticides were highly toxic – and not just to the targeted insects. It took quite a few years for me to phase out the use of these home and garden chemicals.
The use of ‘cides comes with a heavy cost. Not only for the already teetering health of the environment and every living creature in it — but also for us humans. Research is showing that many of the ingredients, both the active and the inert, are turning out to be dangerous. Fetuses, infants and children are particularly vulnerable. Beyond Pesticides warns of the long list of exposure risks that include ADHD, birth defects, obesity, heart disease, lower IQ, leukemia and other cancers, and endocrine disruption.
Pesticides are used wantonly, impulsively, and without consideration of long-term consequences. They are so widely used in agriculture and other commercial applications that the only place we have some control over where they are not is on our own properties.
Ultimately, it’s okay to have spots of powdery mildew on your perennial. Or you could choose to replace the offending plant with a better performing one. Aphid infestation? Aphids feed adult ladybugs and their larvae – but if you don’t like the look of the aphids, blast them off with some water. Got English ivy or weeds? Forgo the Roundup, engage in some exercise and pull them up by hand. Or hire someone to do the digging for you. As home and garden consumers it is time we moved away from conventional pesticide control to more ecologically and biologically healthy practices. It’s a simple but powerful step.
Let’s continue to celebrate our beloved American customs. Let us also start a new tradition of becoming a pesticide free society.