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Ten Questions with Micaela Porta of Pesticide-Free New Canaan

From: The New Canaan Patch
May 14, 2012
By Cobie Graber

1. Why did you start Pesticide-Free New Canaan?

I’d walked by those yellow pesticide flags so many times, and then one day, when I was picking up my youngest from nursery school, I really saw what’s on them: a mom, child, and a dog—struck through by a line. That not only describes me, but nearly everyone I know. And there happened to be a gorgeous Golden Retriever lying not three feet away from the flag! I started reading about what’s in these pesticides, how they work, and why they stay on the market, and that was it. That, and the fact that the number one source of pesticide pollution in our country comes from lawns.

2. What is your goal for your organization this spring?

Our goal now and always is not only to raise awareness about the dangers of lawn pesticides, but also to give homeowners the tools for successfully making the switch to organic. Spring is a good time to make a change, so we give informal talks where we provide information and bring in organic land care experts; we distribute fact sheets with detailed information and how-to’s; and we send out email reminders and tips. But what’s really exciting right now is that we’re working on establishing a Pesticide Research Fellowship for high school students at the New Canaan Nature Center. This will give our participants valuable work-study training in data collection, basic soil sampling, and community engagement. Homeowners benefit by supporting our youth, and by receiving detailed information about the condition of their soil and tailored suggestions for how to care for their lawns and gardens without dangerous chemicals. We were just awarded our first grant, and are pursuing more to make this fellowship happen.

3. What does organic really mean in terms of gardening and landscaping?

First, let’s define the terms, because I think there’s a lot of confusion out there. “Organic” is a classification that’s closely regulated and enforced by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which reports to the USDA. NOSB also reviews and develops the National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances, which tell you what inputs you can and can’t use in organic agriculture and land care. For example, even the use of manure is regulated on organic farms, so it’s included on the list. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is a 501c3 that independently reviews products intended for use in organic production by checking them against NOSB standards. So when you’re at the hardware store shopping for topsoil or herbicide, if the package says “OMRI-approved” it means it’s considered organic. The term “natural,” however, has no defined system, no definition under the USDA. It’s a marketing tool, with no certification, inspection, or compliance required. You have to be careful because there’s a lot of “green-wash” out there that doesn’t meet sustainable criteria, especially when it comes to food and landscaping.

The most important difference between the chemical/synthetic approach to lawn care and the organic approach is that organic is really a method; it’s not about selling you products. Organic land care begins with building healthy soil, which in turn grows healthy grass. Pesticides don’t solve pest problems, and they don’t grow grass. Chemically treated lawns are actually on artificial life support. I want a greener lawn or I want to eliminate the weeds, so I hit it with chemicals. That works for a little while, but those chemicals have further depleted my soil. Because I’ve done nothing to build up the soil, I need to hit it again with more chemicals to temporarily achieve the look I want. And now we’re on the chemical treadmill, all the while exacerbating the problem. Organic breaks that cycle by building up the soil’s microbiology so that it can be the living thing that soil is supposed to be. Once established, organic lawns are essentially self-sustaining because you’ve brought them back to being functioning ecosystems. Chemical companies really hate organic because they want to keep selling us products we’re much better off without.

4. What are the top three things I can do to protect my loved ones and myself from harmful chemicals in their gardens and lawns?

First and most important, run a soil test. This will give you a road map—for example, should my pH be higher or lower? Without these test results, anything is guesswork. No reputable landscaper would apply inputs of any kind to your lawn without one. You can even run the test yourself, it’s so simple; go to UCONN’s soil test website at soiltest.uconn.edu. The results come in a computer printout, and you can ask them to provide recommendations. Second, fertilize appropriately with compost (it’s free for the taking in New Canaan) or another organic or truly natural fertilizer. And third, in the fall aerate and over-seed your lawn with a combination of hardy native grasses, such as mixing ryes with fescues. Grass is strong and, if the soil is healthy, will even crowd out weeds—but it has to be the right grass for the right area. Hardy mixtures stand a better chance. I’d add one more thing, and that is that organic herbicides/pesticides do exist in those spray bottles we all seem to love. You can use them case-by-case to treat problem spots, but if problems persist, go back to your soil test or take stock of what’s happening at that site—there could be compaction, drainage issues, dog waste, etc.

5. Have there been any tests that conclusively demonstrate that pesticides are safe or harmful?

The companies selling us the chemicals are the ones telling us they’re safe. The EPA does not test pesticides; it only registers them. It relies on manufacturers to run tests and make safety claims. Most people assume that because these products are on the market, they’re safe. It’s staggering how much scientific and anecdotal evidence exists that these chemicals are harmful to human and animal health, but here’s the problem: 1. Manufacturers aren’t obligated to disclose all the ingredients in their pesticides (and they don’t), so we actually don’t know what’s in them, and 2. Our exposure isn’t limited to the one active ingredient we do know about, experienced in the limited time frame in which the manufacturer’s safety test was conducted. It’s virtually impossible to conduct a test with adequate controls because in the real world, we’re not only exposed to that given pesticide’s one active ingredient; we’re persistently exposed to combinations of chemicals, sometimes hundreds of “cocktails” on lawns but also in food and beauty products, paint and carpets, and so on.

6. What are some of the risks associated with using pesticides?

From a human health standpoint, there are short- and long-term risks, and the National Institute of Health issued a report this year (2012) saying that children’s repeated exposure to low levels of these chemicals can cause gene alterations that are inheritable—so we’re not just talking about getting sick now or years later, but into proceeding generations. Symptoms of pesticide poisoning can be deceptively simple and commonly misdiagnosed as flu or allergies. They include, but are not limited to, headaches, nausea, fever, coughing, seizures, eye pains, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, sore nose, tongue or throat, burning skin, rashes, muscle pain, blurred vision, numbness and tingling in hands or feet, incontinence, anxiety, irritability, sleep disorders, hyperactivity, fatigue, and high blood pressure. Long-term consequences of exposure to lawn pesticides include lowered fertility, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, birth defects, miscarriages, blindness, liver and kidney dysfunction, neurological damage, heart trouble, stroke, immune system disorders, menstrual problems, memory loss, suicidal depression, and cancer.

7. Do you have any recommendations for budget-friendly, safer, pesticide-free strategies?

Absolutely! We provide lots of detailed information for any level of commitment and budget, but good cultural practices are the best place to start. Mow your lawn high (2 ”-3”) with sharp blades and leave the clippings on the grass, as they provide nitrogen—this is free fertilizer! Water deeply but infrequently to encourage root growth. Rake up leaves and debris in the fall (raking is beneficial, blowing is not). Fall is also a good time to aerate and over-seed with a combination of hardy grasses, like ryes and fescues. You can rent an aerator and share it with your neighbor. And I can’t stress this enough: test your soil to determine what kinds of inputs it needs. This is easy and inexpensive, and takes all the guesswork out of it. Generally, you’ll want to fertilize with compost (which is free in New Canaan, behind the paddle courts at Waveny) or another organic fertilizer in spring and fall, and finish off the season with lime. But without a soil test, you really won’t know what your lawn needs. In Connecticut, this service is provided by UCONN; go to soiltest.uconn.edu to initiate the process. You’ll get the results back with recommendations of what to apply.

8. There has been a lot of coverage over efforts to require labeling of genetically-engineered foods. Do you think GE products should be labeled? Banned?

I believe we have a right to know what’s in our food, how it’s made, and where it comes from, so, yes, I strongly support GE (also known as GMO) labeling. GE’s long-term effects haven’t been studied. For starters, GE is pesticide producing. Because most GE foods are engineered for pesticide resistance, no one buys GE seed without also buying the pesticides to spray on them. And the more the GE crops get sprayed with pesticides, the more resistant the pests become. This is why we’re seeing super-weeds and resistant pests cropping up. So more and newer chemicals are required, and here we are again on the chemical treadmill. For the GE producers, this is the sole incentive in fast-tracking deregulation of GE crops in the U.S. The promises of greater nutrition, pest resistance, and higher yields are quite simply a fiction, a marketing ploy.

That said, I wouldn’t say I support a complete ban on GE, but there should be greater analysis and oversight, not less. None of us likes being a guinea pig. People are confused about what GE actually is, and that’s disconcerting when you think that most of the food we buy in a supermarket is GE. While it’s true that humans have long bred foods to improve their traits, there’s a big difference between that and GE. Traditional breeding happens over time and is based on sexual reproduction between like organisms, like cross breeding a pomelo with a sweet orange to get a grapefruit. In contrast, bioengineers isolate a gene from one type of organism and splice it haphazardly into the DNA of a dissimilar species, disrupting its natural sequence. This is inserting a gene from a species that would never breed in nature into another species, like a flounder going into a tomato. We’re creating risks we don’t even know about, and by the time we fully understand them, they’ll be well beyond our control. We already know that the nutritional value of many GE foods is lower when compared with organic, and according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, GE can bring new allergens into the food supply, increase antibiotic resistance, stimulate a plant’s production of toxins, and some of the new genes added remove heavy metals like mercury from the soil and concentrate it in plant tissue.

9. Would our food supply be larger or smaller without genetic engineering?

This is the big myth, that only GE can feed the world. What we’re seeing is that GE has failed not only to increase crop yields, but that GE yields are actually decreasing, especially in conditions of drought or stress. Additionally, GE is ruining independent farmers everywhere by contaminating their crops, and then going after them for patent infringement. Remember that GE techniques are really applied to crops in the industrialized world, not to crops on which the world’s hungry depend. GE seed is more expensive than regular seed, and farmers who use them also pay for the pesticides that go with them. In the United States, independent farmers are severely under attack because their crops have been contaminated by GE crops that blow over in the wind from neighboring farms. Companies like Monsanto have patented their GE seeds as “intellectual property” so what they do is sue the victims of contamination for patent infringement. How many farmers can go up against Monsanto’s legal team?

If we’re really concerned about feeding the world, specifically the poor, GE simply isn’t the answer. A UNEP report on food security and sustainability issues cites a study begun in East Africa in 2004 that shows organic and near-organic crop yields increased by 116% since the start. In 11 of 13 cases, production rose (sometimes doubling) when farmers switched from chemical to sustainable methods. The Union of Concerned Scientists says that hunger can’t be solved through biotechnology. Other issues besides crop productivity are key, such as a family’s lack of income to buy food, a lack of infrastructure like roads to get food to markets, trade policies that disadvantage farmers in developing nations, and so on. These are complex problems, so it’s no wonder we’d like to think of GE as a quick fix, but it just doesn’t work that way.

10. What actions can I take to effect change in New Canaan and beyond?

Focus on small efforts that we can make in our own homes—and the key words here are “small” and “effort.” We need to get away from the “quick fix” mentality, and it really isn’t hard if we keep to something small so that we won’t get discouraged in ten minutes. Lawns are a great place to start. Commit to switching to organic and break it down into doable steps. Pesticide-Free New Canaan can help with this, and I encourage people to reach out to us for support. Another is buying food grown locally and/or produced organically. Local farmers, like the ones you meet at the Farmers Market, are usually very judicious in their use of pesticides, so I would always buy an apple grown locally with pesticides over one grown organically and flown here from New Zealand. Support local and organic to the greatest extent possible, possibly by committing to a short list of foods you absolutely won’t buy otherwise. For me, the deal-breakers are meat, milk and yogurt, apple juice, and corn, for example, but everyone’s list will differ. And the easiest thing of all is to get into the habit of signing petitions to our elected representatives. These take about 20 seconds to sign, and they really do make a difference. Sign one a day, if you can.