Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Pesticide Problem

The City of Belleville’s current battle over creating a pesticide bylaw is not an isolated one. The war on pesticides is currently being fought in council chambers and public meetings across this country. To date, an estimated 125 municipalities in six provinces have pesticide bylaws. In virtually every case, it is the lawn care companies, backed by the multi-billion dollar pesticide industry, that rigorously opposed the establishment of these bylaws. The pesticide industry fears any restriction on the use of lawn chemicals.

What the chemical giants stand to lose, local lawn care companies stand to gain. But fear is a great motivator. Consider the Luddites of 19th Century Britain. Named after their mythical leader, Ned Ludd, these roaming bands of English textiles workers protested against the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. They marched, smashing the textiles machines they feared would replace their skilled labor. For their efforts, many were rewarded with the gallows or a one-way ticket to a penal colony. Ironically, the Industrial Revolution that they opposed triggered exponential economic growth, not only in the textile industry, but in virtually all other labor intensive industries throughout the world.

Rather than fighting the trend away from chemical maintenance, lawn care companies should be championing these bylaws. Non-chemical lawn care is much more labor intensive, and hence more costly than chemical lawn maintenance. In non-chemical lawn care, the standard of bi-annual spraying that most chemical companies employ is replaced by such maintenance functions as fertilizing, aerating, hand-weeding, de-thatching and over seeding. Since many of these activities are done on an as needed basis, that bi-annual visit can translate into monthly (or more) check ups. Like the Luddites of old, lawn care companies may be forced to change the way they do business. However, those willing to adapt can see that change evolves into an opportunity to expand and diversify their companies.

The proof is in the numbers. Despite the growing trend away from chemically based lawn care, Toronto lawn companies are showing substantial growth. A recently released report by the City of Toronto’s Health Department cites data from Statistics Canada showing a 30 percent increase in the lawn care and landscaping sector since 2001. It should be noted at the same time, pesticide use has decreased significantly. According to the Interim Evaluation of Toronto’s Pesticide Bylaw, “From 2003 to 2005 the proportion of Toronto residents who report any pesticide use on their lawns has decreased by 35 percent.”

The report is a follow-up to the Toronto bylaw, which was passed in 2003, and has been gradually phased in. As of April 1, 2004, Public Health Inspectors responded to calls about suspected pesticide use with a cautionary letter and information about alternatives. Since September 1, 2005, lawn care companies, commercial property owners and other non-residential pesticide users were subject to tickets or summons for violating the city bylaw. Violators were also provided with educational materials. The final phase of the bylaw goes into effect September 1, 2007, when residents can be ticketed for violations. First offenders will receive a warning letter. Everyone gets the same educational materials.

While all of this public education has played a major role, according to the report it’s the bylaw that was the key to helping wean Toronto’s lawns and gardens off drugs. It was from 2003, when the bylaw was passed, to 2005, that residential pesticide use dropped by 35 percent. Over the same period, in London, Ontario, the only city with comparable data, there was a reported 9 percent drop in pesticide use. It’s important to note that London’s pesticide bylaw wasn’t passed until 2006.

The conclusion, according to the report, “Toronto Public Health credits these early signs of success in reducing the number of people and companies using pesticides to its dual implementation strategy based on broad public education and graduated, firm enforcement.”

Given the huge amount of public support behinds these bylaws, it’s likely that Ontario will respond with provincial legislation, much like it did in the case of regional and municipal smoking bans. When that happens, smart lawn care companies will be ready.


The Environmental Factor is already there. This all-Canadian company holds the patent on Canada’s first non-chemical pesticide. Visit www.environmentalfactor.com

For a copy of the report, Interim Evaluation of Toronto’s Pesticide Bylaw, to go www.toronto.ca.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Touch the Earth

The storm that ravaged the greater part of southeastern North America last week left cities paralyzed and commuters stranded. The dramatic reminder that it is still winter, at least in this part of the world, also brought a rash of political cartoons about the veracity of global warming. Some would have us believe that the recent frigid blast from Old Man Winter is enough for us to crank up the thermostat and literally throw caution to the wind about rising carbon dioxide levels.

What happened last week should have been a very sober wake up call. We have become so very good at insulating ourselves from everything that isn’t a perfectly controlled environment, we have forgotten how very little we actually have control over. We are a very tiny part of a huge, diverse and magnificent whole. And while human activity is having a dramatic impact on that whole, we have no way of controlling what the ultimate result of that activity will be.

Essentially, we are victims of our own success. Our isolation has lead to a complete disregard for the biosphere that sustains us. Too cold? Crank up the heat, or better yet, hop on a jet and fly to somewhere warm. Too hot? Crank up the air conditioner. Hungry? Visit a restaurant or go grocery shopping where you can have your choice of tens of thousands of items from virtually every corner of the globe. Need to get somewhere? Hop in a thermostatically controlled vehicle that provides comfort, protection and even entertainment for the journey.

If we are ever to get our heads around the idea that we are part of the greater whole, then we need to make a conscious effort to reconnect with it. Like any healthy change of behavior, such as starting an exercise program, losing weight or quitting smoking, it will take a little discipline to get going. But once you get started, the benefits quickly become their own reward.

If you need a little help, here are a few suggestions:

Watch the sunrise. Bundle up, step outside and focus on the horizon as the sky slowly turns from pale grey to bright pink. As the sun cracks the horizon like a giant egg, try to remember that a single modest star 150,000 kilometers from Earth, heats and lights our entire planet.

Study the intricacies of a single leaf. We can create magnificent gardens, plant forests, landscape entire cities, but we still can’t make a single leaf, let alone a tree.

Count the fingers and toes of a newborn baby. Those tiny, perfect little pink pearls will one day be the tools that will be able to write, run, create, walk, dance and hold the next generation in their grasp.

Take a conscious shower. Try to visualize the system that makes such a luxury possible: the massive infrastructure of filtration and purification systems that takes 4.5 billion year old water and prepares it for your use, the pressurized water pipes and plumping that bring that water into your home; the system that heats that water, whether it be by natural gas that’s pumped across the country, or by electricity that’s generated by massive nuclear or fossil fuels plants, and finally the sewage system that effortlessly whisks the water down the drain when you’re finished.

Dig in the dirt and marvel at its ability to nourish life. That a brilliant red tulip can come from dark brown soil is nothing short of a miracle.

Lie on your back and try to count the stars.

Take a long walk on a cold day until the chill permeates your clothing. Remember that we are only ever a pane of glass and a wall of brick away from that cold.


The (Bio) Daversity Code is the latest parody from the creative geniuses at Free Range Studios. The animated short, which is available online at www.daversitycode.com, explains our connection to the web of life. It’s funny, smart and absolutely on the mark. While adults will appreciate the references to The DaVinci Code, kids can quickly learn about the importance of biodiversity. The website also offers a more serious explanation about the importance of such key ecological treasures as the coral reefs and the mangrove forests. Great for family viewing over the March break.

If you enjoy the (Bio)Daversity Code, check out other Free Range Studios’ parodies, including The Meatrix, The Meatrix 2 and The Meatrix II 1/2.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Grand Prize

Al Gore's well-deserved win on Oscar night sent a very clear message to the world. Sometimes doing the right thing will actually get you the grand prize. His Oscar win, to say nothing of his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, marks a major turning point in the mainstream attitude toward environmentalism.

For decades, Kermit was right. It wasn’t easy being green. In fact, it was almost impossible. The problem now becomes, in a world so completely driven by materialism, how do you define, let alone reward, the success of less? In some cases, we have created new jargon to define the indefinable. The great oxymoron, “sustainable development” and Amory Lovins’ exceedingly clever term “negawatt”, (the megawatt of electricity saved that can be used elsewhere), are just a few examples of how we have attempted to put the idea of anti-consumerism and anti-materialism into tangible terms.

Al Gore’s golden statue aside, we are still left with the problem of how to create a system of acknowledgement that doesn’t further exacerbate the problem by rewarding positive accomplishments in ways that can be construed as negative.

A new anti-smoking campaign by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) is a classic example of the problem. The “Driven to Quit” campaign launched on March 1st, challenges smokers to make an online commitment to quit smoking for 30 days. On March 30th, a name will be drawn randomly from the list of registrants. A non-smoking buddy, also registered, will be contacted to confirm that the selected smoker has in fact remained smoke-free. To further verify the claim, the winner will be asked to take a urine test.

So far, so good. In fact, very good. The problem isn’t encouraging people to get healthy by quitting smoking. The problem is that the grand prizes for this contest are a car and a very big screen TV.

“It's been known for years that cars and trucks are the main source of urban air pollution, contributing 75 percent of the pollutants that cause smog and producing a toxic brew of benzene, small particulate pollution and other carcinogens that lodge in our lungs,” wrote activist Angela Bischoff. “Even the Canadian government estimates that 16,000 Canadians suffer premature death annually due to air pollution alone.”

In response, a Toronto anti-auto group, Streets are for People, has issued a very interesting counter challenge. The “I’ll Quit Smoking if You Quit Smogging” Challenge is offering a prize pack that includes bicycles and a year of free bicycle maintenance.

According to a the group’s press release, “When smog and air quality are at crisis levels, and the world has finally awakened to the reality of climate change, the Canadian Cancer Society is giving away another car to congest our streets and pollute our air.”

The point that the group is trying make is a valid one. It’s time that we seriously looked at our current reward system. If you really must give away a car, why not a hybrid or a Smart car? The CCS is offering an Acura as its grand prize. Wouldn’t it be better (and cheaper) to offer a hybrid Civic instead?

As for the big screen TV, watching television is a couch potato activity. If you want to reward someone who has just quit smoking, how about helping them to get healthy again? A year’s membership at a fitness club, a supply of running shoes and other sports equipment, or a bicycle (to borrow the Streets are for People’s idea) would seem infinitely more fitting (and fitness promoting).

Or perhaps the idea is no prize at all. As a former smoker who was offered all kinds of challenges, bribes and other incentives to help me quit, I can personally attest to the fact that none of it worked. What did work was recognizing that my life was far important to me than my bad habits. More importantly, actually quitting smoking was its own reward.

And that’s the point. When we finally realize that our reckless abuse of the planet is also destroying our home, we won’t need any rewards. Simply being able to breath clean air will be enough.


Check out the Canadian Cancer Society’s contest page at www.driventoquit.ca.

For more on the playful antics of Streets are for People, go to www.streetsareforpeople.org.