Lawns: Looks that Kill

by Cheryl Shour

Loblaws changed more than its product line when it announced that its 440 garden centres would go "chemical pesticide free" by 2003.

This savvy business move anticipates a major shift in what a significant industry thinks will make our economic gardens grow. Every ring of the cash register will prove the power of a new business paradigm -- one where environmental health, personal health and economic health grow together.

Landscaping is big business in Canada. With annual revenues of $7-billion, it employs 100,000 people. The industry is set to grow even bigger as baby boomers age and require more help to keep yards looking great.

Yet most of this money now goes to landscaping that creates chemically-dependent lawns and gardens that are not healthy. Square metre for square metre, lawns and gardens are sprayed with pesticides more intensively than most farms.

The pesticides create lawns with looks that kill. After all, that's what the "cide" in pesticide is all about -- "cide" as in suicide, homicide, genocide. Lawns are supposed to be places where children can play. But children are especially vulnerable to pesticides. When they roll on the grass, then put toys and fingers in their mouths, they directly ingest pesticide residues. They're exposed to a dose of pesticides just at a time when their bodies, brains and nervous systems are most sensitive to disruption.

Although the science on this is still emerging, the indicators of dangerous links are clear. One study from the Children's Cancer Group found that children exposed to household pesticides were three to seven times more likely to develop non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A joint study by the Missouri Department of Health and the University of California at Berkeley found an increased risk of brain cancer linked to pesticide use.

Chemical pesticides are also deadly for many creatures that cheer up our gardens and keep our plants healthy. Worms, bees, butterflies, ladybugs and birds do a lot of our gardening for us. They pollinate flowers, aerate the soil and eat the bugs that eat our plants. But pesticides rain down on pests and beneficials alike.

Pesticides don't stay put. They drift on air currents and are carried by storm-water runoff and rain to the rivers and streams that run through our neighbourhoods. Samples of water collected in southern Ontario in the late 1990s found a number of common lawn and garden chemicals, sometimes exceeding provincial water-quality guidelines.

With only about 1 per cent of a pesticide actually reaching its target, what is sprayed on one person's lawn ultimately affects everyone's environment. It doesn't have to be this way. Beautiful lawns and gardens can be had without chemical pesticides. Members of the Organic Landscape Alliance are proving this every day.

To some extent, it is a question of product substitution. Nematodes, which prey on grubs, are a safe substitute for chemical insecticides. Plain old soapy water can keep away chinch bugs. Perennial rye and fine fescues will give you a hardier and more pest-resistant lawn than Kentucky bluegrass. That's where Loblaws garden centres, and hopefully many others to follow, come in.

To some extent, healthy lawns and gardens also require a change in strategy. Healthy soil grows healthy plants; weeds, by contrast, are a symptom of unhealthy soil. Healthy plants can better resist disease and infestation. What we're talking about here is converting the landscaping business into a knowledge industry, one based on the skills of landscapers, not the application of dangerous materials.

Ironically, one of the biggest problems that Loblaws and organic landscapers face is the federal health department's Pest Control Products Act or PCPA. This legislation, which registers all pesticides permitted for use in Canada, was introduced in 1969, back when asbestos, DDT and CFCs were thought to be safe. It has not been significantly amended since.

Oddly enough, this legislation has created a conflict where businesses are leading the way in promoting health and the environment, while government is throwing up barriers.

The PCPA has created the worst of two worlds. On one hand, it permits continued use of outdated toxins that modern science would never tolerate. On the other hand, it actually prevents the use of innovative non-toxic substitutes. Applying corn gluten meal is a safe and natural way to control weeds. Yet it is illegal for landscapers to use it for this purpose or to recommend it to others because it has not been registered under the PCPA. The same is true for a range of products.

Canadians want the government to act. A poll conducted by Oracle Research last fall indicated that 82 per cent of Canadians support laws restricting the use of pesticides in their neighbourhoods. That tells the organic landscaping business that there is lots of room for growth.

But the tools need to be more widely available. That won't happen until the federal government realizes that it's time to get down to the business of creating a healthy and safe landscaping industry in this country, and stop protecting obsolete and dangerous chemicals.

Cheryl Shour, CEO of Healthy Home Services Inc. is president of the Organic Landscape Alliance.

Reprinted from The Globe and Mail 25 March 2002, with permission from the copyright holder.