Stuck in the middle with you

Clowns to the left of me,

Jokers to the right, here I am,

Stuck in the middle with you

 

More than once in the past couple months I’ve come close to pulling the plug on FaceBook.  What started as a fun and easy way to keep up with family and friends back home and stalk old girlfriends has devolved into an infinite do-loop of whininess, acrimony and vitriol over GMO’s, organic food, vaccines, and President Obama.  Of course, I brought a lot of this on myself based on the virtual company I choose to keep.  While my allegiances generally align with groups such as GMOLOL, GMOskepti-forum, and the Genetic Literacy Project, more and more I find myself just as appalled by their tactics and rhetoric as I am by those of the anti-GMO side.  I have many thoughtful and intelligent friends that think GMO’s should be labeled or even banned and I’m fairly certain none of them want poor African children to go blind.

greenpeacerice

Quick aside here: Raise your hand if you have ever changed your mind on an important issue based on an internet meme.

2958d9dc0b3f2d0fb38413122b86e2b8

The problem in this type of discourse is that everything has become an all or nothing game.  If you concede even the slightest point to the other side, you have become a wishy-washy capitulator.  But the underlying problem is the answer in science is often “It depends.” In the GP blog and elsewhere, much has been made of the Pew Research poll that showed the biggest opinion gap between the scientists and the public was over GMO safety.  Had I been polled, I would have agreed that GMO’s are generally safe.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there are concerns. Heavy agricultural use of glyphosate is leading to the development of Round-up resistant weeds. Likewise, the potential of GMO crops out-crossing with native plants cannot be discounted.  Scientists working on GMO’s, of course, are aware of these issues and are constantly working on steps to manage and minimize these risks, but they could still come back someday to bite us in the butt – the risks, not the scientists.

d0bvh

Another problem with controversies on the interwebs is that issues get over-simplified.  The endless argument over organic food is just stupid.   Saying organic production is better than conventional farming (or vice versa) is like saying Ford is better than Chevrolet:  You can’t compare without knowing which model: Pick-ups? Sedans? SUV’s?  Or  what’s being compared: Gas mileage? Crash safety? Resale value?  The same is true with organic vs conventional: What crop? Celery? Apples? Carrots? Lettuce? And what measure? Pesticide residue? Carbon footprint? Food safety?  The debate is an interminable game of whack-a-mole. I suspect anyone with access to ‘Web of Science’ and an afternoon to kill could come up with a couple dozen studies to support either side.  My personal view is I’ll pay a modest premium for organic produce if it clearly looks better, or in the case of small fruits that I can sample before I buy, tastes better than the conventional counterpart.

images

The other issue in the social media wars is that we need to admit and accept the limits of our knowledge.  The Pew poll and other surveys indicate that most scientists agree that climate is changing due to human activity.  Again, I’m with the majority of scientists on this.  But only a small portion of those scientists are actually trained in climatology and understand and appreciate the nuances of the Global Circulation Model or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. What I know with certainty is that CO2 and other greenhouses gasses have risen consistently and dramatically since the Industrial Revolution.  How will that impact climate in 100 years?  I have no clue beyond what the climate scientists tell me.  Do I have any reason to doubt their projections of steady increased temperatures? None beyond the fact the GCM, like all models, is only as reliable as the data and assumptions it is built on.  Does this make me a right-wing climate change denier?  Hardly.  But I am self-aware enough to know what I don’t know.

post-57707-Groundhog-Day-meme-Imgur-Only-gmvA

Bottom-line, even on issues where a vast majority of scientists agree, there are still unanswered questions and areas of uncertainty and always will be.  In the meantime, we still have to make policy decision with the information at hand.  Talking about these issues intelligently and respectfully will get us further than derision and mockery.

b48dad3d48ea96ae1cdfc1bed575abd12d4265e243dd6211a06e99d12a3a1acd

In the meantime, if you open up FaceBook and I’m not there, you’ll know I’ve finally had my fill.

Spec errors mount

For years I subscribed to Consumer Reports. I appreciated their objective approach to product testing and lack of advertising. In their own words, their policy is to “maintain our independence and impartiality… [so that] CU has no agenda other than the interests of consumers.” But recently they’ve veered off the science-based trail – at least the one running through our gardens. Their approach to plant and soil sciences is more pseudo than science. And last year, after 30+ years of loyal membership, I quit my subscription when Consumer Reports began partnering with Dr. Oz (see here for instance ).

So until today I’ve been blissfully unaware of whatever CR has published on gardening and garden products. Then this post appeared on our Garden Professors blog group page ). I’ve included some of the article below along with my italicized comments in brackets.

“Lawn care without the chemicals: rid your yard of weeds and pests with these mostly organic solutions”
“…Here are 10 common weeds and pests that plague homeowners nationwide, along with chemical-free measures [“chemical-free?” Well, we shall see.] that should be effective in bringing them under control. For more information, go to the websites of Beyond Pesticides and the Great Healthy Yard Project. [Neither of these two sites is remotely scientific or objective.]

“Dandelion – what is it? A perennial weed whose common yellow flowers turn to windblown seed. Telltale signs. Though a handful of dandelions is no big deal, a lawn that’s ablaze in yellow has underlying problems that need to be addressed. How to treat. Like many broadleaf weeds, dandelions prefer compacted soil, so going over the lawn with a core aerator (available for rent at home centers) might eradicate them. [Like many broadleaf weeds, dandelions will grow anywhere. That’s why they’re called weeds.] It also helps to correct soil imbalances, especially low calcium.” [I’m curious how CR determined a “soil imbalance.” And did they test their hypothesis experimentally?]

Dandelions obviously suffering in a calcium rich soil

“Barberry – what is it? An invasive shrub with green leaves and yellow flowers, often found in yards near wooded areas. Telltale signs. Left unchecked, the shrub’s dense thickets will start to choke off native trees and plants. How to treat. Cut back the stems and paint their tips with horticultural vinegar or clove oil (repeated -applications may be needed). Burning the tips with a weed torch might also work.” [Yes! Chemical free vinegar and clove oil! By the way, clove oil has NO demonstrated efficacy for this application. And I’m sorry, but “burning the tips” of barberry is just going to stimulate lots of new growth below the damage. Just out of curiosity, how many people have problems with barberry in their lawn?]

I think you’d notice this in your lawn…

“Crabgrass – what is it? An annual weed with a spreading growth habit. It’s common in the Northeast, in lawns with poor soil conditions. Telltale signs. Lots of bald spots, especially after the first freeze, when crabgrass dies off. How to treat. Have your soil tested. Lime or sulfur may be needed to adjust the pH. Aeration is also recommended. Corn-gluten meal, applied in early spring, can be an effective natural pre-emergent herbicide. [Corn gluten meal, applied in early spring in climates where it rains, is an effective fertilizer for crab grass.]

Crabgrass with increasing levels of corn gluten meal.
Courtesy of Tom Cook, Oregon State University.

“Kudzu – what is it? An aggressive climbing vine that’s common in parts of the Southeast and the Midwest. Telltale signs. The thick vine forms a canopy over trees and shrubs, killing them by blocking out sunlight. How to treat. Pull out the vine and, if possible, its taproot. Be sure to bag and destroy the plant or its vines will regerminate. If the root is too thick, paint the stump with horticultural vinegar or clove oil repeatedly, or burn it with a weed torch.” [Ditto the comments for barberry.]

Have fun painting stumps. (Wikimedia)

“Canadian Thistle – what is it? An aggressive creeping perennial weed that’s found throughout the U.S. Telltale signs. Look for outbreaks in vegetable gardens, particularly those with peas and beans. [I have no idea where this little nugget of nonsense came from. It’s a weed! It will grow ANYWHERE! It doesn’t need peas and beans!] How to treat. Repeated hand weeding and tilling of the soil will weaken its extensive root system. [Because tilling the soil is such a great way of suppressing weed seed germination. And it’s really good for your lawn, too.] Planting competitive crops, such as alfalfa and forage grasses, will keep it from returning.” [Yes, do replace your lawn with alfalfa and forage grasses.]

Your new, improved lawn (Wikimedia)

“Fig Buttercup – what is it? A perennial weed with yellow flowers and shiny, dark green leaves. It’s common in many parts of the East, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest. Telltale signs. The weed will start to crowd out other spring-flowering plants. It can also spread rapidly over a lawn, forming a solid blanket in place of your turfgrass. How to treat. Remove small infestations by hand, taking up the entire plant and tubers. For larger outbreaks, apply lemongrass oil or horticultural vinegar once per week when the weeds first emerge. It might take up to six weeks to eradicate.” [Now in addition to pouring vinegar on your lawn, we’ll try lemongrass oil instead of clove oil. Another unsubstantiated application – maybe lemongrass because buttercups are yellow? Makes about as much sense as anything else. It smells nice though.]

Color coordinated weed control

“Phragmites – what is it? An invasive grass species found nationwide, especially in coastal wetlands [where so many of us have lawns]. Telltale signs. Dense weeds can crowd out other plant species without providing value to wildlife. How to treat. Cut back the stalks and cover the area with clear plastic tarps, a process known as solarizing. Then replant the area with native grasses.” [Solarizing pretty much nukes everything that’s covered – not just the weeds. In fact, the rhizomes of this weed are so pernicious I’m not sure that solarization would work. Am still waiting for CR to test their hypothesis in an objective and scientific manner.]

Phragmites rhizome (Wikimedia)

So, Consumer Reports, I’d love to come back to you. But until you start applying your own standard of objective rigor to everything you cover, I’ll have to pass.

Go ahead, weed, make my day…

Ridding an ecosystem of invasive plants is never easy. We can bring in goats to munch on offending plants or force armies of schoolchildren into slavery to pull them out; but, in all likelihood the sneaky little devils (the invasive plants, not the schoolkids) will be re-sprouting and back with a vengeance before we can turn around. For many invasive plant infestations the most practical long-term solution is chemical control – in other words, herbicides. Of course, herbicides have their issues such as drift and potential impacts on non-target plants. And what do you do when you want to get rid of invasive plants in a remote, sensitive ecosystem with limited access? Enter Herbicide Ballistic Technology (HBT). The HBT system uses the same technology as a recreational paint-ball gun but instead of filling the projectiles with paint, the balls are filled with triclopyr, which is commonly used in homeowner products for brush and poison ivy control.
hbt

Dr. James Leary at the University of Hawaii has been exploring the use of HBT to control invasive plants in various ecosystems in Hawaii. Most of the time Dr. Leary and his colleague use the standard paintball HBT system, but for the big jobs they call in the heavy artillery – literally. Dr. Leary recently presented a seminar here at MSU on work he and his team have conducted in conjunction with the Maui Invasive Species commission to eliminate populations of Miconia calvacens, one of the most problematic invasive trees in Hawaii. According to the seminar abstract, Dr. Leary reports “Our best utility for HBT deployment on a Hughes 500D helicopter platform featuring real-time capabilities in target elimination. …we have conducted 17 tactical search and destroy mission covering a total net area of 3,888 ha and eliminating 7,463 Miconia targets.”

Targeting miconia from a helicopter. Photo: C. Duncan.
Targeting miconia from a helicopter. Photo: C. Duncan.

Clearly the war on invasive has been raised to a different level

WARNING: This post contains graphic content

As many of you know, numerous homeowners and golf courses in the Midwest experienced substantial damage to trees, especially conifers as a result of application of Imprelis, a new turf herbicide that was released by DuPont in fall 2010.   If you do a google image search for ‘Imprelis’ you can see lots of photos of the typical damage we observed in summer 2011, when most Imprelis damage became apparent.  The usual symptom of Imprelis exposure were brown, twisted and stunted shoots or trees killed outright.

 

 

White pine killed by Imprelis – July 2011. Photo: Bert Cregg


Shoot damage – July 2011. Photo: Bert Cregg

Today, however, I received some images from an Extension Educator in southwest Michigan that turned my stomach.  So what happens when trees that weren’t killed by Imprelis try to resume growth?  The results are not for the feint of heart.


‘Club-like’ shoots – March 2013. Photo: Beth Clawson.


‘Tumor-like’ growths at the ends of shoots – March 2013. Photo: Beth Clawson.


Imprelis damaged shoot cross section – March 2013. Photo: Beth Clawson.

New study on pesticide use and GMOs

Some environmental extremists discount agricultural research done by universities, because they receive funding from Big Ag and therefore their researchers can’t be trusted. So this news report of a recent study by one of my Washington State University colleagues is doubly important: it dispells this baseless assertion and it provides some significant – and troubling – information about pesticide use and GMO crops.

Briefly, the article links an increased use of herbicides as a result of increased use of GMOs such as Roundup-ready crops. Weeds build up resistance to herbicides over time, meaning that Roundup becomes less useful as a weed killer and farmers have to turn to more toxic substitutes like 2,4-D to control weeds.

Dr. Benbrooks’s results, published in a peer-reviewed journal, are contested by the chemical industry, and other scientists question the seriousness of the problem. But next time you hear someone malign university scientists as being in Monsanto’s back pocket, please refer them to this post.

My Thoughts on 2,4 D

 

My sister, who lives in the Pittsburgh area, just gave me a call.  She and her husband have two kids and a lawn and she wanted to know my feelings about using herbicides to keep the grass free of weeds.  When we were growing up our parents had a large lawn (and lots of fruit trees) and it took two of us two hours to mow the whole thing.  It kind of turned her off to grass.  The truth of the matter is that she doesn’t even want the lawn she currently has, but her husband wants it – and he wants it weed free.  So she called me giving me the “you’re supposed to know about this stuff” line and asked me what she should do.  My response was that the herbicide her husband would be applying (trimec) wasn’t on my list of super bad things to apply, but that, in my opinion too many people want their lawn too free of weeds.   I don’t see anything wrong with applying an herbicide once a year – it won’t keep a lawn pristine, but it will knock out most of what most people want knocked out.  Why do people insist on having spotless yards – applying herbicides from three to six times per lawn per year?  It’s insane.  Not so much for the safety of humans, but for the good of the lawn ecosystem.  It’s good to have a mix of different plants – it’s healthy.  Using an herbicide really cuts down on you biodiversity, and can affect the safety of dogs too.  You see, 2,4 D, probably the most used pesticide on lawns in the US (and a component of trimec), isn’t rapidly excreted by dogs.  If we are exposed to 2,4 D we just pee it out – our kidneys process it rapidly and out it goes.  In a dog’s system this chemical sits and sits.  It is for this reason that 2,4 D is considered particularly bad for dogs and is suspected of potentially causing cancer.

One more note about dogs.  The reason that lawns get dog spots is because of the amount of nitrogen in the dogs urine – it kills plants – it IS NOT because of the pH of the urine.

So…How Much Pesticide Is Actually In Our Fruits and Veggies?

We have discussed the dirty dozen here before – those foods which a group called The Environmental Working Group (wow—fancy name – everything they say must be true!) has established contain more residues of different pesticides than other foods.  I’ve already stated my concerns about selecting organic foods instead of conventionally grown ones because of a fear of pesticides so I won’t restate that here.  Instead what I want to call your attention to an article sent to me by our visiting professor, Charlie Rowher.  This article runs down the amounts of pesticides that are actually in the dirty dozen. And the thing is….there just isn’t much pesticide of any sort on most foods and there is no evidence at all that eating these levels of pesticides would be bad for us in any way – even if we ate them in copious amounts day after day.

To be honest I think the authors of this article go a little too far – I do think that there is some potential for damage even from the ultra-small pesticide doses that we find on our foods.  But their points are well taken – the amount of pesticides in food is miniscule and less likely to be damaging to us than a great host of other things.  I’m much more concerned about certain segments of our population suffering malnutrition from avoiding conventionally grown fruits and veggies than I am about the larger portion of our population getting cancer from eating them.