Opinion: Edmonton is finally making a commitment to green thinking

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Edmonton just got a whole lot healthier. On Monday, the city council approved two long-overdue policies: ending aerial spraying of wetlands around the city (which we had spent over half a million dollars on annually during a global biodiversity crisis) and committing to a 2023 cosmetic pesticide ban (preventing the non significant use of pesticides).

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The former means protecting the birds, dragonflies and other species that naturally control mosquito populations. Edmonton has apparently had an aerial mosquito spray program since 1974. Well, Canada and the US have lost almost a third of their birds since 1970, and scientific research points to the decline in insect numbers as the main cause. The largest decrease was seen in ‘Aerial insectivores’. Sand Martins, for example, were once common in the Edmonton River Valley; however, after a 98 percent decline in the last 40 years, they are now an endangered species. As any elementary school child knows, we cannot simply remove the base of the food chain.

Most Edmontonians understand that. In a 2019 poll, citizens’ top priorities for controlling “pests” and “weeds” in the city were:

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  • Health of wildlife, including pollinators that may be exposed to pesticides: 93 percent;
  • Health of population at risk of exposure to pesticides: 85 percent;
  • Health of aquatic ecosystems that may be exposed to pesticides: 85 percent.

Luckily, a majority of the Council listened to the citizens and voted in favor of ecological (and economic) thinking. An even larger majority – 12 to one – voted to ban cosmetic pesticides from next year. This ensures that the city’s landscape alternatives – including permaculture, naturalization and urban gardening – are not undermined by the use of pesticides. Currently, pesticides sprayed on lawns, golf courses and college campuses become airborne, enter waterways and accumulate in the soil. What’s the point of growing wildflowers or vegetables if we continue to poison the birds, bees and butterflies they are designed to support and need support from to stay healthy?

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Over 180 cities across Canada already have bans on cosmetic pesticides — some for over 20 years. They did this to protect human health and the environment. Health Canada does not register pesticides on the basis of “safety” but “acceptable risk” and is now on trial for the re-registration of glyphosate, which the World Health Organization classifies as “probably carcinogenic”. The provinces, on the other hand, only enforce Health Canada regulations (and a recent damning audit showed that Alberta itself does not). So the cities acted.

However, Edmonton continued to allow pesticides linked to cancer and other diseases, particularly in children. A 2017 city audit found that urban use of pesticides more than doubled between 2010 and 2016. Despite promises, the increase has continued since then – sometimes by outrageous amounts. For example, acephate use (associated with lower IQ in children) increased 7,016 percent from 2019 to 2020. The city injects this product into boulevard trees, even though the chemical is 10 times more toxic to birds than DDT. What happens if a woodpecker eats an insect from a treated tree?

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Pesticide use occurs even in the river valley, despite the fact that this is a heavily used, ecologically sensitive area and pesticide use should not be used near rivers. Kudos to the City Council for saying “no more”.

The public health emergency we face today is not the need to control nasty “pests” or “weeds,” but rather damage from pesticide exposure, diseases caused by nature degradation, and antimicrobial resistance (superbugs). The World Health Organization has now adopted a “One Health” approach to recognize that human and environmental health are inseparable – that the best way to protect ourselves is to support healthy ecosystems. The war against nature leads to far greater problems (including for us) that we urgently need to recognize.

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The way is clear. Stop spraying and start protecting nature. Restore wetlands for dragonflies. Let the sand martins ricochet. Plant resilient turf on golf courses. Celebrate growing organic food. Such a shift, in turn, opens up new possibilities. In Montreal, citizens are reclaiming back alleys to plant gardens, support pollinators and birds, and create safe spaces for children to play.

These are opportunities that our city can take advantage of now. It was a big win that Edmonton is finally joining other cities in doing green thinking.

dr Raquel Feroe and Kristine Kowalchuk are with Pesticide Free Edmonton; Rod Olstad is with the Edmonton Chapter, Council of Canadians; Mary Lou McDonald is with Safe Food Matters.

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