This comment is from Michael Bald, a resident of Royalton.
Gravity, moon cycles, the four seasons and their corresponding light conditions: These are environmental constants with which we animals and plants have developed. Sure, there are deviations within “normal” ranges, but Earth’s environmental constants have remained largely true to their historical range windows. There is reliable predictability.
But even as global warming shatters our sense of normalcy with shifting temperature regimes and intensified weather events, a quiet, new environmental constant has emerged in Vermont since the 1940s.
It’s now a given, an absolute certainty, that the Vermont landscape will dump thousands of pounds of pesticides every year during the growing season. Tons of toxin, typically in the same hotspots with pinpoint regularity. 17 tons of glyphosate in 2020 and 31 tons of atrazine.
I say this is done quietly because we never talk about it.
Plant species that have roamed the Vermont landscape since the Ice Age adapted, adapted, and probably even depended on the annual migrations of billions of birds. These migrations included the passenger pigeon, whose overflights served as a regular event of fertilization in the swamps and forests below. All of this excrement from vast bird populations was a resource, a dejuicing of ecosystems that is no longer happening.
The spawning runs of salmon serve a similar nutrient transfer role. How does a complex forest area react when its annual nutrient showers begin to fade while flocking bird populations die out? These showers were a constant, a regular occurrence.
The change was clearly drastic and fitted almost seamlessly with the air pollutants of the Industrial Revolution. However, the industrial substances falling from the sky were not nutritious and beneficial. Rather, the acid rain has leached the soil of important ions like calcium and magnesium, elements that every tree needs. And acid rain served as a reliable environmental constant for a full century.
Thus, since the mid-1700s, the Vermont landscape has seen the end of the regular fertilizer program (marked by the extinction of the passenger pigeon) and a century of damaging acid rain. Luckily, pollution laws brought some relief from the constant acid rain, but new toxins soon arrived.
As humanity emerged from the hell of two world wars, waves of new pesticide products hit store shelves, some newly developed and others repurposed. Many were targeted for homes and gardens.
Today, our annual total use of pesticides is one of our most devastating environmental constants. Why? Because although pesticides break down over time, these breakdown products accumulate and the impact increases year after year.
In our soil and water, the breakdown products mix with everything else that we have washed away or thrown away. Eventually, the result is weakened soils, contaminated water and disrupted food webs. That’s the toxic legacy, part of it.
Pesticide data does not track secret ingredients in the formulations. Over 2,000 such additions are allowed (Chemicals that penetrate waxy leaf coatings and reportedly even PFAS compounds). Why can this remain a secret? Why do we tolerate glyphosate in our grains, beverages and honey (FDA studies) without dissent? What are the effects on human health and immunity?
In 2022, humanity’s impact is a new environmental constant everywhere. While seasonal windows now carry distinctive sounds (think leaf blowers), the growing season is marked by our toxic signature. The problem is compounded in Vermont because the St. Lawrence Seaway is “the tailpipe of North America” from a jet stream perspective.
Not only do we have to deal with our own self-inflicted chaos, we also suffer the impact that rains bring from the Midwest. US Geological Survey data show that growing season rainfall carries an herbicide, fungicide, and insecticide signature; several contaminants are typical and the latest high profile toxin is dicamba, a relative of Agent Orange.
What can Vermonters do now that pesticides are so mainstream? I propose a clear first step: we could stop pretending. Stop pretending that others blamed this disaster on us and recognize our own role in fixing it.
Farms use large amounts of pesticides, yes, but so do golf courses, colleges, and utility companies. We spray poison ivy in state parks and dab herbicide on native beech trees in state forests. The Department of Agriculture figures only capture the use of pesticides reported by professional users; We have no idea what people are buying as individuals.
We, the citizens, are turning to synthetic chemicals to clean the cracks in our sidewalks and to control vegetation, fungi and insects wherever they occur. We even use herbicides in arrogant, misguided efforts to restore habitat to our favorite birds and mammals. Strange – even birds know better than to soil their own nest.
Do we have the power to change this new environmental constant? Naturally. We are a problem-solving species, and solutions to our pesticide addiction already exist. We have different tools and creative minds. Purchasing power is real and allows us to support visions for clean water and pristine landscapes.
An informed approach to the environment for the benefit of our children is a decision. However, the constant for decades has been our unwillingness to make the choice.