Michael Bald: Heavy pesticide use is now a silent environmental constant

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This commentary is from Royalton resident Michael Bald.

The pull of gravity, the cycles of the moon, the four seasons and their corresponding light conditions: these are environmental constants with which we animals and plants have evolved. Of course, there are variations in “normal” ranges, but Earth’s environmental constants have remained largely true to their historical range windows. There is reliable predictability.

But even as global warming disrupts our sense of normalcy with shifting temperature patterns and intensified weather events, a new silent environmental constant has emerged in Vermont since the 1940s.

It is now a given, an absolute certainty, that the Vermont landscape will see thousands of pounds of pesticides applied during the growing season, year after year. Tons of toxin, usually in the same hotspots with precise regularity. Seventeen tons of glyphosate in 2020, and 31 tons of atrazine.

I say it happens in silence because we never talk about it.

The plant species that have colonized the Vermont landscape since the Ice Age have adapted, hosted, and likely even depended on the annual migrations of billions of birds. These migrations would have included the carrier pigeon, whose overflights served as a regular fertilization event on the swamps and forests below. All this excrement from massive bird populations was a resource, a juice of the ecosystems that no longer occurs.

Salmon runs play a similar nutrient transfer role. How does a complex forest react when its annual nutrient showers gradually fade as flocking bird populations disappear? These showers were a constant, a regular occurrence.

Clearly, the change was drastic, and it synchronized almost seamlessly with the airborne pollutants of the Industrial Revolution. However, the industrial substances falling from the sky were neither nutritious nor beneficial. On the contrary, acid rain has leached the soil of important ions like calcium and magnesium, elements that every tree needs. And acid rain has served as a reliable environmental constant for an entire century.

Thus, since the mid-1800s, the Vermont landscape has seen the end of the regular fertilizer program (marked by the extinction of the passenger pigeon) and a century of damaging acid rain. Fortunately, pollution laws offered some relief from the constant acid rain, but soon new toxins arrived.

As mankind emerged from the hell of two world wars, waves of new pesticides appeared on store shelves, some newly created and some repurposed. Many were targeted for homes and gardens.

Today, our cumulative annual total of pesticides is one of our most devastating environmental constants. Why? Because even though pesticides break down over time, these degradation products accumulate and the impact increases year after year.

In our soil and water, the products of degradation mix with everything we have rinsed off or set aside. Eventually, the result is weakened soil, contaminated water, and broken food webs. It’s the toxic legacy, part of it.

Pesticide data does not track secret ingredients in formulations. Over 2,000 of these additives are allowed (chemicals to penetrate waxy sheet coatings and supposedly even PFAS compounds). Why is it allowed to remain secret? Why do we tolerate glyphosate in our cereals, drinks and honey (FDA studies) without any opposition? What is the impact on human health and immunity?

In 2022, the impact of humanity everywhere is a new environmental constant. While seasonal windows now carry signature noises (think leaf blowers), the growing season is marked by our toxic signature. The problem is amplified in Vermont because the St. Lawrence Seaway is, from a jet stream perspective, “the exhaust pipe of North America”.

Not only are we dealing with our own mess, but we are also suffering from the rain effect brought by the Midwest. Data from the US Geological Survey shows that growing season rainfall bears a herbicide, fungicide, insecticide signature; several contaminants are typical and the latest high profile toxin is dicamba, a relative of Agent Orange.

What can Vermonters do now that pesticides are so well established? I submit a clear first step: we could stop pretending. Stop pretending that others have dumped this disaster on us and acknowledge our own role in solving it.

Farms use large amounts of pesticides, yes, but so do golf courses, colleges and utility companies. We spray poison ivy in state parks and dab herbicide on native beech trees in national forests. Figures from the Agriculture Agency only capture pesticide use reported by professional applicators; we have no idea what people buy as individuals.

We citizens turn to synthetic chemicals to clean the cracks in our sidewalks and to manage vegetation, fungi and insects wherever they exist. We even use herbicides in arrogant and misguided efforts to restore the habitat of our favorite birds and mammals. Weird – even birds know better than to defile their own nest.

Do we have the power to modify this new environmental constant? Sure. We are a problem-solving species and solutions to our addiction to pesticides already exist. We have other tools and creative minds. The purchasing power is real and enables us to support visions for clean water and uncontaminated landscapes.

Enlightened environmental stewardship for the benefit of our children is a choice. For decades, however, the constant has been our reluctance to make the choice.

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