Hartley Magazine

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The profits of ignorance

Real change in the way we garden will only come about when we break through the communication failure between the vocal earth-friendly minority and the quiet majority who keep on buying chemicals.

When does change come? When do we look around and see it with our own eyes? When can we feel it in the air? How many virtual signatures, how many tweets, how many letters to MPs, to magazine editors, to local authorities, to supermarket bosses, to – add your choice here – does it take before positive, lasting change is real and graspable? Judging by some of the antics in the gardening world in recent months, the answer is clearly a hell of a lot, and then some. Even that may not be enough.

No hype needed: an adult hoverfly foraging on erysimum during a pause between egg-laying.
No hype needed: an adult hoverfly foraging on erysimum during a pause between egg-laying.

As someone who draws much of their hope, optimism and sheer unblemished joy from gardening, I am rapidly losing heart – though not with gardening itself; for me that will always be a gentle yet powerful way of changing things for the better. Doing it in a mindful, earth-friendly way only adds extra oomph. Tending a garden or allotment, or even just a few patio pots or a window box, is where most of us can expect to have a one-to-one with nature. Watching a hoverfly going quietly about its egg-laying requires no hype, no media spin, no advertising, no one-click purchase, no bland gardening celebrity telling us how ‘awesome!’ it is (right though they’d be).

No; where I am truly losing heart is with the conversations – if we can call them that, in this age of instant connectivity – that we are having about gardening and its place in the natural world. Such conversations are littered with examples of dismal communication. It doesn’t help that if you dare utter words like ‘heart’ and use phrases like ‘I feel…’, you are instantly branded an eco-crank – the put-down from those who get the jitters whenever the herd-like status quo is challenged. Forget your feelings and instincts, and don’t mention ‘earth’ at any cost. It’s pragmatism, bits of paper telling us something is ‘safe’, celebrities, PR robots and increasingly, of course, ‘the economy’ that truly matter. But what also matters, hugely, is the ground on which we have these conversations.

Right now, a ‘big conversation’ is happening around one of the hottest topics that can quickly be changed for the better through the actions of gardeners. Unfortunately, much of it is taking place among a minority of the already ‘converted’, which I don’t mean as a put-down. By ‘converted’ I mean those folk who have scratched away the veneer of innocence that garden pesticides and weedkillers have acquired as must-have ‘everyday essentials’, who listen beyond smoochy celebrity assurances, and who think for themselves. But how do the unconverted fare – the vast majority, who don’t read gardening magazines or blogs, or listen to or watch gardening programmes, who probably don’t even think of themselves as gardeners, but who unwittingly trust what those who flog garden chemicals say? It’s crucial to find out, because real change lies here, with the uninformed many, not – much as I would like to believe it – with the already concerned, on-the-money and frustrated few.

A few weeks ago organic grower and gardener Nicky Kyle (who does great podcasts from her County Dublin polytunnel) took a photo in a Sainsbury’s supermarket, showing ‘Roundup’ weedkiller (which contains glyphosate) and other garden pesticides, sitting cheek by jowl with children’s birthday cakes. Nicky posted this on Twitter, and created a burst of interest, and the store soon responded to say it had moved the poisons elsewhere. Sainsbury’s ‘corporate’ excuse was simply, and sadly, that ‘mistakes happen’.

It’s time to reverse the mistake we’ve made in allowing toxic chemicals to become oh-so-everyday wherever they’re sold (image courtesy Nicky Kyle).

It was certainly a mistake to put a poisonous chemical which the International Agency for Research on Cancer (the specialised cancer agency of the World Health Organisation) recently classified as a ‘probable carcinogen’ (PDF) next to kids’ cakes. But the bigger and sadder mistake is that these poisonous, man-made chemicals, which we know pollute widely and turn up in our food and our pee, are now treated as mere commodities when we’re out shopping. Sadder still is that we’ve allowed this to happen, based on a bit of paper somewhere telling us all is well if they are used ‘according to the label instructions’. A person I saw recently, fumbling to squirt weedkiller along the path in their front garden, while a young child and a dog played alongside, had obviously studied the small print.

I wondered if they had any inkling that glyphosate weedkiller, which is being pumped onto our farmland, along our roads and pavements, and around our town centres and playing fields, in ever-increasing quantities, probably causes cancer. I doubt it, but why would they? These poisons have been sanitised and made oh-so-everyday by selling them alongside kids’ cakes, next to knickers, or opposite healthy, fresh vegetables. Stitch this faux-everydayness together with the mass advertising telling us that we’re too busy-busy to pull up weeds and you get a recipe for big sales and fat profits. And when gardening magazine editors sell the same message – a sop to their powerful advertisers that they’re onside – or when celebrities crow that glyphosate ranks alongside pickled onions in terms of its potential carcinogenicity, profits are a piece of cake. Dare to mention that pickled onions don’t cause global pollution or harm earthworms or essential soil fungi, that you won’t find residues of them in your bread (PDF), or that it’s unlikely you’ll breathe them in when sitting out in your garden, and you risk crackpot status. For those who would rather push them apart, joining the dots is a frightening, not to mention profit-denting prospect.

The tell-tale signs of ‘probable carcinogen’ glyphosate weedkiller are found almost everywhere. This is on the boundary of a play area.
The tell-tale signs of ‘probable carcinogen’ glyphosate weedkiller are found almost everywhere. This is on the boundary of a play area.

The way things are now – with a minority speaking up and trying to trigger a domino effect of real change, while the majority simply remain unaware of the pressing need for it – is just how garden chemical manufacturers (and others, such as peat-mining companies) like it. Keeping the ‘debate’ around the use of toxic, polluting chemicals between a minority of concerned, informed gardeners (sorry, I mean us green, organic eco-cranks) and their own lifeless PR machines, abetted by gardening editors and indifferent retailers, ensures it stays far removed from where most of the real change-makers are. Provided that the huge majority of folk who have gardens but don’t perceive themselves as gardeners keep on buying glyphosate weedkillers (or, say, bee-harming neonicotinoid bug-killers), and are soothed by the ‘pickled onion brigade’, then all is well, the profits of ignorance keep flowing, and little changes. So long as the media-fuelled myth that those nasty ‘greens’ are out to get gardeners still has legs, concerned voices are tuned out, and not much changes. While weedkiller clad in bright, cheerful packaging is stacked next to kids’ cakes in supermarkets, nothing will change.

We know where real change will come from, who the real change-makers are, and where they are – out tending their gardens. The quandary is how to find fresh ground where a new, meaningful and informing conversation can flourish, which will bring about the change that nature urgently needs – which is when we stop buying and using this stuff. Tit-for-corporate-tat-style ‘debate’ just won’t cut it any more; we’ve tried that, in the best of faith, and it’s failed. We need to find ground that’s not polluted by spin, or by the spoutings of celebrity. I don’t believe anyone who sows seeds or plants things – whether they see themselves as a gardener or not – actually wants to knowingly harm the natural world, so hopefully this won’t be too hard. This new conversation must inform, inspire and above all encourage a greater sense of inquisitiveness – so that weedkillers stacked next to cakes are seen through new, more critical eyes.

Let’s find that place, let’s have this vital conversation, let’s change things – for the better. That is, after all, what gardening is all about.

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener


  • frankie goodwin

    Wow! Thank you, John!
    I have recently started working in a prop. nursery after completing ChemCert training, cert. III in Horticulture and Conservation & Land Management. So it shames me to say that even though I am one of the few qualified people in the nursery I’m expected to keep my mouth shut when I see workers spraying with no PPE, in windy weather and in the presence of other workers. These people don’t understand what they’re doing and worst of all they don’t care! I’ve noticed their health is deteriorating rapidly and they’re taking more and more sick leave.
    What can I possibly do to change this?

    • Thanks for joining in, Frankie.

      It sounds like a sad – and unsafe – situation, but I’m not surprised. Here in North Wales I’ve spoken to several people who’ve found themselves travelling behind slow-moving vans with a knapsack sprayer lance sticking out of the passenger door. This, apparently, is the ‘safe’ way to apply herbicide (almost certainly glyphosate) to the edges of roads. Much of it is clearly unnecessary, and of course it takes place right next to drains which discharge directly into streams and then rivers and then the sea.

      In your situation probably the only thing you can do is try to strike up a conversation around the use of pesticides, and around glyphosate in particular. There is ample scientific evidence available online to share (once you’ve ploughed through the manufacturer’s spin and bluster) which ought to be convincing enough to make your colleagues think twice about using it recklessly. The biggest problem with pesticides is that they’re invisible. If we could see our streams and rivers turning say pink, the conversation around pesticide use in gardens and elsewhere would soon gather momentum.

  • charles Warner

    I have a nursery in West Wales. I supply garden centres. We are totally peat free and I do not feel the need to use any chemical pesticides on the plants. I do though use Glyphosate for weed control on roads and uncropped areas. I’m trained, careful and I follow instructions. I have only sprayed twice this year. I agree with you about the retailing of pesticides and herbicides. The Roundup next to the cakes is a horrendous thing and comes about because of the normalisation of having potentially harmful chemicals on our shelves and a lack of knowledge on the part of the retailers.. On the whole though I think it is a slightly improving picture. It wasn’t long ago that we had tv adverts for fly killers that you hung up in your home which dispensed diazinon insecticide around your kitchen while you cooked dinner. I was probably one of the first people in the Uk to ever take the mandatory spraying course (I did it so early that I had to do it again because they changed it before it became a legal requirement) before then anyone could buy any chemical they wanted and without training apply it at will. Once when I was managing a garden centre I was asked by the owners to spray an insecticide for vine weevil ( a rep had advised them to use it). I have forgotten the name of it now but it was real nasty for which you needed to use full protective clothing including a respirator . I refused on the grounds that it was unnecessary, ineffective, expensive and possibly illegal. I was passing on my bike on my day off so pulled in to find a guy that could not read and write liberally spraying the stuff around in a near gale with no protective clothing and customers wandering about. I was furious. Having said all that I would be hard pressed to not use Glyphosate at all. I leave whole areas for grass and docks to flower and seed and I only have to look out of the window to see the birds feasting on these. We have lots of herpatiles including beautiful grass snakes and sloworms and now lots of common lizards scurrying around. Eventually I have to strim these areas but I only strim off the tops and I do so a patch at a time so that the birds have plenty to eat. I’m not trying to win a medal and I suspect that there are plenty of places that are better than us in this regard but If I didn’t use a herbicide I just don’t think I could keep invasive weeds under control. It would be easier if we grew entirely under protection but I don’t and the plants are hardier and therefore fight off pest and disease more readily than softer protected crops would. If I sell the garden centre a crop of willowherb alongside my phloxes I won’t be in business for long and although we use every method we can to keep weeds under control I don’t think I could do it without glyphosate. I would like to know your feelings about this. I feel a little compromised to be honest. I don’t really think in my heart that the horticulture industry is sustainable at all with its massive use of plastics and peat and fertilisers and the import of plant material from all over the globe. Noone needs what I produce and although I enjoy my work I’m under no illusion that it is anything more than producing ornaments to gather dust on a shelf. I spend a lot of time in garden centres and this only strengthens that feeling.

    • Thanks for chipping in Charles – my heart doesn’t sink quite so much when someone from the commercial side of horticulture joins in these vital (but almost non-existent) conversations.

      Yes, the Roundup-next-to-cakes is a sign of how advertising and PR have won the day over common sense, aided by ignorance throughout retail supply chains (and abetted by pro-pesticide gardening editors). In effect, we’re offering anyone that walks into a shop the chance to buy a whole range of toxic pesticides which they can take home and apply using a ‘scattergun’ approach as they wish. Because that’s what pesticide use is: scattergun. There are reams telling us how ‘safe’ glyphosate is, but we hear next to nothing about how glyphosate is just a single ingredient in a bottle of Roundup weedkiller. And then of course we hear nothing at all about what the potential impact of a cocktail of synthetic pesticides might be – because no one has or is testing for them. We’re only just getting to know what the effects of a single component of a pesticide formulation are, so examining the ‘cocktail effect’ is way down the list.

      What’s also bemusing, but very telling, is that we talk about pesticides as if they’re everyday tools that have been around as long as forks and spades. When I hear gardeners talk about glyphosate in defensive terms, I do wonder how our thinking has got to this point (and then i read another magazine editorial and get plenty of clues). Equally bemusing is how anyone can go into a shop and buy a pesticide that those working in professional horticulture must be trained for before they can legally use it in their workplace. In a garden or allotment setting these substances can be used however anyone one wants – as carefully or as recklessly as an individual decides. The idea that people get home and study the label is largely pie in the sky. And of course you don’t need full protective clothing, either.

      Your set-up sounds brilliant and my hat is off to you for being an example that gardeners (as well as other horticulture businesses) can follow and be encouraged by. We need every example of more mindful horticulture that we can get. Surely there’s a logical progression in your case? You’ve stopped using peat (which wrecks nature), pesticides (which pollute nature), and (I think I’m right in this) artificial heating (which generates CO2 and unbalances nature). Isn’t the next ‘step’ to eliminate the use of glyphosate – which pollutes/wrecks and has a hefty carbon footprint, being made largely from oil? I know the wild plants will still be there, but there are new technologies coming along which are pesticide-free e.g. the Cardley Wave which uses hot water to kill weeds (www.cardley-wave.co.uk). In these supposedly entrepreneurial times, would it be too much to dream that companies offering such services could make a good and decent living working with local authorities and smaller businesses such as yourself? Surely it’s better to rise to the challenge and to innovate, than to assume glyphosate is all there will ever be, knowing what we know about the harm it does to the living world? In my garden I could never look the basking lizards in the eye and use anything that might disrupt their ability to share this bit of earth with me (sorry, the eco-crank popped out there).

      I wouldn’t feel compromised at all. Horticulture is more than capable of reaching a respectable level of ‘sustainability’ (whatever that really means) but it clearly won’t do it on its own – gardeners will have to drive change from the checkouts upwards. Buying plants is a wonderful experience. I would feel elated to buy yours knowing that the chain of events which led them to my shopping basket was as environmentally sound and as ethical as it can be.