“I’m always taken by how deeply women like to dig in the earth. They plant bulbs for the spring. They poke blackened fingers into mucky soil, transplanting sharp-smelling tomato plants. I think they are digging down to the two-million-year-old woman. They are looking for her toes and her paws. They want her for a present to themselves, for with her they feel of a piece and at peace.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés
One of the reasons this blog was so neglected this Spring was because I was spending a lot of time outside shovelling somewhere in the region of 7 tons of topsoil and manure into 2 new raised beds and a load of old car tyres, and planting them with vegetable seeds and seedlings. The desire to grow our own food (or as much of it as we can) became irresistible; not just for the process of growing, which is a miraculous and deeply satisfying thing, but for the knowledge that vegetables grown with love in soil you’ve carefully nurtured to be as fertile and free as possible of pollutants, herbicides and pesticides seem to give even more back in pleasure, taste and nourishment than you’ve put into them.
And despite all the difficulties of this growing season – the lateness of it, the relentless rain and slugs, the barely warm enough soil, the 21-hour days around the summer solstice that bring everything on to bolt, the occasional depredations by the free-range rabbit and a herd of cows staging a mass breakout – the delight in the garden and its produce hasn’t diminished one bit.
Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine the disappointment suffered by gardeners up and down the UK this year when their newly-planted potatoes, beans, tomatoes started to grow with leaves that curled inward like distorted spoons, growing tips tightly curled up liike fern fronds, and flowers and fruit that failed to form. People imagined it was something they’d done wrong, or some disease their plants had acquired, until – thanks entirely to allotment growers’ and gardeners’ discussion forums on the internet – they learned that the problem was widespread, and seemed to be connected with the manure people had faithfully dug into their plots earlier in the year. Deformed plants were sent away for analysis, and were found to contain traces of a hormonal herbicide, aminopyralid, manufactured by Dow AgroSciences, which was being released from the rotting hay and straw in the manure.
Aminopyralid damage to potato plants at Green Lane allotments, one of the sites to have done most to define and expose this problem.
Many suppliers of manure hadn’t been aware of its presence, so had supplied their product in good faith. Straw, hay and silage bought in for winter feed and bedding didn’t come with a warning that it had previously been sprayed with this herbicide. Most farmers assume the herbicides they use will degrade quickly. Most (so we’re told) do. Aminopyralid, and its precursor clopyralid, also manufactured by Dow, do not.
Evidently the problem isn’t new, though the scale of its effects – in the UK at least – appear unprecedented. The herbicides are used to control the growth of broad-leaved plants like docks and thistles in grassland and pasture. Grasses are unaffected by the chemical, but it’s taken up and incorporated into the lignin, the woody tissue in the plant. There it remains, until released by decomposition.
As an Ohio State University fact sheet explains:
“The problem is that, unlike most pesticides, clopyralid is very persistent in composts and manures and is largely unaffected by the composting process. Most plants are not damaged by clopyralid, even at rates used on lawns and agricultural crops. However, plants in the bean family (Leguminosae), the potato/tomato family (Solonaceae), and the sunflower family (Compositae) are very sensitive to this herbicide. It can stunt tomato, clover, lettuce, pea, lentil, sunflower, pepper, and bean plants at levels in compost as low as 10 parts per BILLION! Since the level of clopyralid on grass the day of application is 10,000 to 50,000 ppb, even a small amount of contaminated material entering a composting facility or directly applied to sensitive crops can cause major problems.”
(You’d think Ohio State’s Departments of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and Horticulture and Crop Science would have known how to spell Solanaceae, but hey ho …)
This is not just disappointing to many gardeners, but devastating. It seems cruelly ironic that this herbicide should be particularly pervasive in compost and manure, the two staples of organic cultivation. This has further implications too. If herbicide residues are found on organic farms, it can lead to a loss of organic certification for several years, even though there is presently no requirement for organic farms to provide bedding from organic sources.
Effects of aminopyralid aren’t limited to the 3 plant families listed as susceptible to clopyralid above either. There have been several reports of damage to plants of the Rosaceae (strawberries, raspberries, roses) and Ranunculaceae (delphiniums).
As a result of growing public outcry, UK authorities have imposed a hasty, but temporary, suspension on the sale of products containing aminopyralid – there is an online petition calling for a complete ban – but ‘experts’ estimate that ground fertilised with contaminated manure will take 2-3 years to return to usefulness. The manure itself may take far longer to break down. Much of what has been used in gardens this year is already over a year old.
Problems have even been reported growing tomatoes in gro-bags sold as ‘organic’. Some gardeners report problems with manure sourced from organic farms, showing that even the most concerned and vigilant amongst us aren’t immune from contamination. The inter-relatedness and interdependence of our communities and our use of the land make its spread inevitable and uncontrollable, much as the spread of GM crops can’t be limited to the fields in which they grow..
Most commentary on the subject seems restricted to the immediate and personal concerns of each individual commentator, but as ‘Marti’ wrote:
“This may seem a small point, but if the public think it is only the odd bag of manure that is contaminated, or that stables are being irresponsible or whatever, we are missing the point. This is not a case of a “bad batch”. This is a case of a chemical company marketing a product that is so potent, and so long-lasting, that it has enormous consequences straight down the supply line for an indefinite amount of time.”
Leaving aside for a minute the unremittingly anthropocentric perspective of all the commentary I’ve read on the subject, it also shows, yet again, the extent to which linear thinking is incongruent with the processes of the natural world. The very obvious impact of a powerful herbicide on the plant it’s designed to eradicate is limited to that impact only in the realms of our imaginations – just like drugs and their ‘side effects’ – while all the while its ramifications are rippling out though the web of life, unseen until once again its unpredicted effects cross our field of vision and we are startled out of our somnolent one-track minds to confront a reality of unity and interconnectedness in which whatever we do to a small part, we do to the whole.
Just like the whole nitrate fertiliser question.
Oh hell. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Just turn over and go back to sleep.
“The notion that all these fragments is separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion. Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today. Thus, as is now well known, this way of life has brought about pollution, destruction of the balance of nature, over-population, world-wide economic and political disorder and the creation of an overall environment that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for most of the people who live in it. Individually there has developed a widespread feeling of helplessness and despair, in the face of what seems to be an overwhelming mass of disparate social forces, going beyond the control and even the comprehension of the human beings who are caught up in it.”