Saturday, 18 July 2015

Four things eco-gardeners don't want you to know

If you dare to mention 'chemicals' on the internet you will very quickly attract a load of people who claim that everything is dangerous and kills bees (it's always the bees, never any other insect...). Speaking with these people it's all to often the case that they are well meaning individuals who prefer to follow their hearts than science, and while some are well informed about the issues surrounding the use of chemicals in the garden, others come up with some rather crazy and unorthodox 'facts' that others then take as being total truth.

It seems we've lost our ability to question; we can't question studies without bias any more. The prevailing attitude amongst a decent wedge of gardeners is that all research carried out that doesn't support the anti-chemical viewpoint is wrong, while research that does support the anti-chemical viewpoint is automatically right. People blame multinational companies for using very selective information, yet then choose to ignore studies that go against their viewpoint....

I'm not an organic gardener, and neither am I pro-chemical. For me a chemical is a tool that should be used with the same care and consideration as any other tool. In the same way that you wouldn't use a strimmer to deadhead your roses, neither is it necessary to dose a plant with insecticide every time you see an aphid. Unfortunately it seems that few others seem to think like me. Here, nonetheless, are four things the eco-gardeners don't want you to know:

Research done on chemicals such as neonicotinoids and glyphosate are aimed at agricultural usage; if you spray a neonicotinoid onto a few aphid colonies in your garden it's incredibly unlikely that you will cause any damage to bees unless you spray an open flower. Farmers spray vast areas of crops with chemicals regardless of whether or not there might be beneficial insects around. Spot treatment of isolated colonies of pests presents a minuscule risk, and it gets even better; if bees aren't foraging on a specific plant then the risk is even further reduced, so spraying a patch of weeds that aren't in flower with glyphosate, or insects on a plant that isn't in flower, simply does not pose any meaningful danger.

Banning neonicotinoids is great, but does anyone really think that farmers will just shrug their shoulders and stop spraying? No they won't; the next group of chemicals they'll turn to is the pyrethroid group which is much less selective and will kill all bugs. Oh and for anyone who thinks that these chemicals are dreamt up in a lab, both are based on natural plant insecticides.

It is simply not true that a litre of glyphosate sprayed in a garden is as dangerous as 10,000 litres sprayed on a field; the higher the dose and the more sustained the exposure the higher the risks. While we're on doses, there is compelling research that shows levels of glyphosate in bread. Firstly the doses are minuscule and you'd have to eat a lot of bread to be in danger, but fair enough, nobody wants any type of poison in their food. Glyphosate is sprayed directly onto grain shortly before harvest to dry it out, hence the chemical is still present in the grain when it's milled for flour. In your garden you would never spray your vegetables with glyphosate, and spraying weeds elsewhere in the garden will not magically poison your food crops.

It's not enough the say that you feel that chemicals are harmful. To be approved any chemical product must be rigorously scientifically tested, while few organic treatments have ever undergone any meaningful scientific study. Various products are sold as 'plant invigorators' and claims have been made about their control of certain pests but these haven't undergone trials and they aren't licensed. Fair enough, if they don't contain harmful ingredients then who cares? My point here isn't so much about ingredients but impressions; a lot of anti-chemical information around is based on selective understanding of selective studies, along with people's impressions of what is, in their hearts, right and wrong. In the same way that you wouldn't trust a chemical manufacturer to release research that shows their products in a negative light, neither can you truly trust the anti-chemical lobby. The use of chemicals in agriculture creates polarised viewpoints, and it seems that nobody is capable of occupying middle ground. Take for example the point I made above about chemicals in agriculture; the 'green gardening' lobby read research on agricultural practices and then proclaim that because widespread agricultural use of a product may be harmful it is therefore true that small scale use of the same products in gardens is equally harmful. This is simply not true, and yet it's the case that people spout half-truths at every turn. What you do in your own garden is up to you, but creating fear through misinformation isn't acceptable whether you're a vast multinational company or an eco gardener.

So there you have four things that the eco gardeners don't want you to know- I may add to this in the future as things occur to me or crop up. Your garden is your own, and if you fill it with flowers all year round and create a good ecosystem then wildlife (good and bad) will come to you. Most gardens are fairly self-perpetuating and won't need any intervention. I haven't sprayed for pests and diseases in nearly 10 years, not because I'm anti-chemical but because I'm just a good gardener, but if I did need to treat a pest then I would do so by whatever means are necessary. Similarly with glyphosate I will spray on the rare occasions that it's necessary (paths and drives, but most of my work is on borders and lawns where glyphosate isn't the right tool), but by using knowledge and common sense I won't be creating the ecological disaster the green gardeners claim I unleash every time I open the weedkiller bottle. Careful and appropriate small-scale use of chemical isn't the problem, it's massive use by agriculture, but that won't stop this article (and others before it and others still to be written) stirring up those who would prefer to follow their hearts than their brains. Such a shame really; the organic gardening lobby contains some incredibly good scientists and thinkers who could really change the world, but until science and common sense are allowed a voice....