Cattails. In Manitoba, Canada, a noxious weed to be destroyed.
Manitoba’s “war on weeds” comes complete with powerful herbicides, questionable spraying practices and collateral damage.
by Larry Powell
Many governments in North America believe, a good way to ensure successful food production, is to help farmers keep plants out of their fields which can cut into their yields and their profits. To achieve this, potent weedkillers, some with unsettling safety records, are often pressed into service to destroy these “weeds” in ditches before they can spread to adjacent fields and food crops. For most lawmakers, this must seem a natural extension of a chemical system of agriculture which has come to dominate the developed – and, increasingly – the developing world, as well. As a result, those who might have liked to chose a different path, are being increasingly marginalized.
Manitoba is no exception.
According to an official statement from the province, “Noxious weeds can threaten both farms and natural habitat. For example, the invasive species, leafy spurge, has spread to over 1.2 million acres. It costs the province and farmers over $40 million each year through loss of production on agricultural land.” So, ever since the province was born 142 years ago, it has set out to annihilate any wild plant standing in the way of that goal. A sweeping piece of legislation as old as the province itself, called the Noxious Weeds Act, gives Rural Municipalities (RMs), cities, towns and Weed Control Districts, the power to declare any property a noxious weeds site. Authorities can then move in and destroy any offending weeds or seeds found there by mowing, burning or killing them with chemicals. The owner or occupant could face hefty fines or see the property put up for sale or rent, with little recourse under the law. (Many other jurisdictions in North America are said to have similar legislation.)
But it’s hard to tell how often these kinds of extreme measures are used. According to the province, “Any incidents relative to weed control on private land are handled internally between the municipality and the landowner.” In other words, this information is secret. And attempts by this author to obtain more details, have had little success, so far.
Another key element in this “war” has been the spraying of railway rights-of-way and ditches along rural roads adjacent to farm fields or pastures. As early as the 1930’s, the province of Manitoba began ordering herbicides such as 2,4-D in bulk, paying up to half the cost. But an incident which came to light this fall, has cast new doubt on the wisdom of this approach.
Dave and Maggie; Symbols of a Bygone Era – or Champions of a Better Way?
It was the spring of 2010. David Neufeld and his partner, Magdalene Andres, were looking forward to another growing season, as they had done for about two decades before. The two grow organic bedding plants in their greenhouse near Boissevain, in southwestern Manitoba. But that year, tragedy struck. In Neufeld’s words, “Every single one of our plants curled up grotesquely and died!” They sent samples to a Winnipeg lab, which confirmed that the culprit was the herbicide, Tordon 101. Unknown to them at the time, their local government, the RM of Morton, had sprayed the chemical in ditches near their home. As he had done before, Neufeld had cut hay in those ditches to feed to their horses, and then used the composted manure to fertilize their greenhouse plants. (Tordon 101 kills broad-leaved plants, but not the grasses he cut for the hay.)
Their farm, “Room to Grow,” is set amid the rolling hills of the “Turtle Mountains.” The two had met where they studied at the University of Waterloo. Their backgrounds in the Mennonite church had instilled both with a keen sense of sustainable living. They married and spent eight years with the Mennonite Central Committee. Much of that time they served in Africa, where their four children were born. They moved to their “woodland farm” in Manitoba in the early ’90s. There, they became the first and only producers in the province at the time to market certified organic seedlings, such as tomatoes, peppers and medicinal herbs, to fellow growers. Their rural homestead became a gathering place for others who share their wish for a simpler way of living. Customers who want to “get away from it all” can sit around a campfire, listen to the coyotes howl, then stay in a guest house, made of straw bales, free of modern conveniences such as TV or Internet! While no longer officially certified as organic, Dave and Maggie’s passion to produce their plants without the use of chemicals, still burns brightly.
Neufeld estimates their losses that year, at at least $10,000. But now, they not only have to get their hay from somewhere else, they have to pay for it too. They’re still in business. But they had to remove the contaminated soil from their greenhouse and now just hope their groundwater hasn’t been contaminated. Despite all of this, he doesn’t blame his RM. Nor does he expect them to provide compensation for the loss. That’s because, unlike previous years, he had neglected to ask them whether they had been spraying the ditches. And, they had.
Are Authorities Breaking Their Own Spraying Regulations?
During the course of his own research, Neufeld discovered that, in 2010 Health Canada issued this directive on picloram.“DO NOT apply this product directly to freshwater habitats such as…..ditches……”; Yet, less than a year later, a Health Canada official in Manitoba, Shannon Van Walleghem, seemed to do an about face. She informed Neufeld, roadside ditches are NOT considered aquatic habitat. Rather, what the regulation really referred to, she explained, was a ditch “used to carry water for irrigation or domestic uses,” not to “a typical prairie roadside ditch.” When pressed on this apparent contradiction, Health Canada insisted that “Ms. Van Walleghem’s letter does not represent a change in interpretation….”
Tordon 101 is made by the chemical giant, Dow AgroSciences. Its active ingredients are picloram and another herbicide, widely used on its own, 2,4-D. Dow refers to its product as “The vegetation manager’s choice for controlling unwanted weeds, brush and trees in an along rights-of-way.” It also claims that it breaks down rapidly in surface water and is unlikely to reach groundwater.
But over the years, Tordon 101 has come to be known as Agent White, one of the so-called “rainbow” chemicals applied in wartime. Along with its more infamous companion, Agent Orange, it was heavily used by the US military in the 60s to defoliate the jungles of southeast Asia during the Viet Nam war. Yet Canada may have even beaten the US military to the punch in applying these products. And it wasn’t even wartime! In the 1950s, the decade before the war, Agents White and Orange, were also sprayed as defoliants in New Brunswick, along power lines and at the Camp Gagetown military base. Many cases of serious health issues among those applying the spray there, have been documented.
While few studies were done on the toxic properties of Agent White at the time, such was not the case with Agent Orange. It was widely blamed for killing or maiming up to a million people in Vietnam as well as causing countless health problems for US war veterans.
But since then, the evidence against Agent White (Tordon 101), has been mounting, too.
In 1997, the Journal of Pesticide Reform published lab tests on animals which concluded, “Picloram is contaminated with a carcinogen (hexachlorobenzene). In addition to causing cancer of the liver, thyroid, and kidney, (it) also damages bones, blood and the endocrine and immune systems. Nursing infants and unborn children are particularly at risk…” Contrary to its manufacturer, Dow, independent research concludes, it has been “widely found as a contaminant in wells, lakes and rivers in the US and is deadly to small fish.” Some 20 years ago, almost seven thousand kilograms of fish died at a hatchery in Montana, on a waterway not far downstream from where it had been sprayed on a roadside. In tests on lab animals, it has been found to cause reproductive problems including miscarriages and birth defects. The Journal also describes as startling, the damage picloram can cause to potato, cotton and tobacco crops.
Several decades ago, mules were used to cultivate a US tobacco crop after the animals had grazed in a pasture treated with the herbicide. “Stunted crop with spotty distribution” resulted on and near mule droppings deposited in these fields.
Then, about two years ago, a team of researchers at Oregon Health and Science University tested the toxicity of picloram on neurons derived from mice. It found the weedkiller “significantly decreased total RNA,” a substance which helps all living things build protein. It also “damaged nerve cells and affected antioxidant enzymes” which help the body ward off cancers.
Citing its persistence, mobility and toxicity, Sweden and the State of California both banned picloram, decades ago.
In 2003, flowerbeds and vegetable gardens in Chauvin, Alberta, died. Government tests revealed picloram had infiltrated the village’s groundwater. It cost about $100 thousand to get a new source.
Yet, as recently as 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US was unmoved by any of this. Nor was it swayed by two of its own branches, which recommended discontinuation of the product. While it did add some restrictions, the Agency renewed the herbicide’s license. (Canada has, for years, followed the lead of the EPA in its own rulings, following a process called “harmonization.)
So What, if Anything Might Change?
Neufeld has so far been frustrated in his efforts to get Manitoba to suspend the use of picloram until the legal issues are sorted out. “The Noxious Weeds Act uses scare tactics,” he laments, “to force all land owners and applicators and councillors to fall into line. This sounds more like a military structure than a voluntary democracy of free people. Our governments seem more willing to refer to business interests than to public interest.”
Meanwhile, in 2011 alone, the Government of Manitoba issued permits to RMs, railways and even government departments, to apply more than 21 thousand litres of picloram-based herbicides. And little seems to have changed since Neufeld and his partner faced that fateful growing season almost three years ago. According to the provincial government, the number of permits it has been issuing for picloram-based herbicides has remained the same; 65 in 2011, another 65 last year. On the contrary, the provincial government may be pressing on with its”war” with more zeal than ever. It is considering changes which could actually see it begin to fine local governments if they do not put “proper weed control programs” in place.
More than 500 “noxious weeds” are listed in the Act, although some may seem like unfortunate choices. Take milkweed, for example. It provides the only source of food for Monarch butterfly larvae, and is therefore essential to the very survival of that species. The prevalence of milkweed has already been significantly reduced in the US, through the aggressive application of chemicals needed for the success of genetically- modified crops. Latest figures show populations of the Monarch dropped this year to their lowest levels in the two decades in which records have been kept! The plant has an abundant, high-quality nectar which supports a diversity of pollinators, including honey bees.
So does sunflower, another plant on the Act’s hit list. Even cattail is there. This common marsh plant is so good at filtering out impurities, municipal governments sometimes use it to purify waste water from municipal sewage lagoons.
Although the chemical culture is deeply ingrained in the psyche of the province, Neufeld is not without his allies. Ruth Pryzner also farms in southwestern Manitoba, near Brandon. While serving as a local councillor herself from ’02 to ’06, she says she tried to protect individual property owners from spraying which “contaminates their land.” For several years now, she’s had a stormy relationship with her local government, the RM of Daly and the supervisor of the Midwest Weed District, Sid Lewis. About a year ago, in a letter to her local paper, the Rivers Banner, Pryzner referred to Neufeld’s plight, months before his story had broken in mainstream media. She said local authorities were taking her to task for simply questioning the safety of picloram. In columns of his own in the same paper, Lewis accused Pryzner of causing “undue problems for our weed management program.”
Neither was he impressed that Pryzner used to graze some 200 sheep in local ditches, as a method of controlling leafy spurge, which they love to eat. Lewis wrote that the weed growth in municipal ditches adjacent to her property “is more of a concern to neighbours every year, compared to what we have sprayed.” Pryzner disagrees. She says the sheep were controlling the weeds so nicely that the Deputy Premier of the time, paid a visit to observe. But she had to end the practise in 2008 when “someone mysteriously sprayed the ditches illegally.” She claims it was illegal because the province had granted her a valid exemption from the spraying. Then, for safety reasons, because they were raised for their meat, Pryzner says she has not let the animals graze there, since. The RM denied it had anything to do with the spraying incident. A follow-up investigation by the province was inconclusive.
Manitoba Ponders Ban on Similar Chemicals.
Ironically, Manitoba seems on the verge of joining several other provinces in placing a ban on the sale and application of “cosmetic” pesticides, those used to control nuisance weeds like dandelions on lawns. If it does, it would be acting on recommendations that such pesticides are linked to adverse health effects, notably in children and pregnant women. According to a government website inviting input into a ban, “Pesticides in agriculture or to control noxious weeds may be the same pesticides that are used for cosmetic purposes, but are not the subject of this consultation.” At least one chemical would be the same in both contexts; 2,4-D, an active ingredient in Tordon 101. It has been sold in Manitoba for years under the brand name, “Killex” to control lawn weeds. Meanwhile, the Manitoba Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI), Ron Kostyshyn (whose department administers the Noxious Weeds Act), is not available for comment on any suggestion that the province may be applying a double standard, or even breaking the law in the way Tordon 101 is applied.
Academics Join the Fray
William Paton chairs the Department of Biology at Brandon University. He has directed a horticultural extension program there for more than 30 years. “Right from the start, damage to shelter belts, crops and horticultural materials has been an ongoing tragedy,” Paton explains, “not only here in Manitoba but also in prairie US and Canada. The unfortunate thing is that much of this damage could be avoided if applicators followed the rules particularly with respect to wind speed and atmospheric conditions. I have shared this information with Health Canada with no effect.”
Eva Pip is a water quality expert and a professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg. She lives in the Rural Municipality of Brokenhead, just east of the city, so is able to observe, first-hand, what happens there. “The weed district people spray the ditches when they are full of water, which does little for the weeds but contaminates the water. While cattail are excellent nutrient absorbers and therefore clean the water entering Lake Winnipeg,” Pip observes, “the weed people are out to kill everything that might possibly improve the quality of runoff water. The Manitoba government speaketh with forked tongue. On the one hand, they bemoan the nutrient problem and how do we reduce it, on the other, they kill the plants in the ditches that are the primary nutrient removers.”
Peggy Kasuba and her husband, also live in Brokenhead. “We had a ‘fit’,” she proclaimed, after the operator of a spray rig passing by their property some time ago, warned them to keep kids and pets away until the 2,4-D had a chance to dry. Not only did our dog romp through the ditches, mallard ducks swim in them when they have water. Just north of us, Showy Lady Slippers grow in the ditches. Every year we noticed dead young trees and the lower limbs of large trees dried up and the leaves curl up and die. Friends living not too far from us no longer hear frogs in their ditches.”
Kasuba says the spraying is not even necessary, since farmers already spray their own fields. Besides, “there are no farmers’ fields near us, anyway!
Despite their requests to be put on a “no-spray” list, she says, it has continued.
NOTE: Another version of this story appears in “The Dominion – News From the Grassroots,” both in print and online, here.