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Before You Spray, Read This!

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Oh, my aching muscles...

The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks and the Bottom Line

By Jeff Gillman

208 pages, $12.95

Published by Timber Press

By Mary Gutierrez

The title of The Truth About Organic Gardening sounds provocative, as if there is some conspiracy just waiting to be exposed. What is revealed in The Truth is a fact that all gardeners need to know: just because it says “organic” on the label doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.

The author points out something that I’ve often thought. The term “organic” has become politically and emotionally loaded. And if a pesticide is labeled organic, some people assume it is harmless. Organic simply means that the product is derived from a source in nature. In other words, it isn’t engineered in a laboratory. An organic pesticide cannot be assumed to be harmless to human or animal life. Or how would it kill bugs or fight disease? Perhaps a more useful term would be a “natural” pesticide.

Whether you are a gardener who goes totally natural or one who must have picture-perfect (read: toxic) roses, there are choices to make when confronted with a nutrient deficiency or disease.

Note: The term pesticide refers to any product used to treat pests be they insect, fungus or weed. While specific products are categorized as insecticide, fungicide or herbicide, all are used to combat pests that afflict plants.

This book was born when Gillman became associate professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Minnesota, and had to teach students about pesticide use. His students had widely varying backgrounds: some had lots of experience using synthetic pesticides and others were growers who didn’t use any pesticides. He knew he’d be asked challenging questions from both sides, and he wanted to answer from an informed perspective.

What started out as a few weeks of research on pesticides turned into months, then years. He hoped to find a simple answer to whether synthetic pesticides are “good” or “bad.” His review of literature produced more questions than answers. The result is The Truth About Organic Gardening, which parses the nuances of a multitude of gardening products and practices.

Things get good in Chapter 2, “Understanding Pesticides.” It’s short—just five pages—but dense with information. Here, Gillman lays out his definitions and discusses pesticide labels.

The all-important label. The label lists a product’s active ingredients (that kill the pest) and inactive ingredients like those that help the product stick to leaves. The active ingredient (or trade name) is important to know, rather than the brand name of the product. Example: brand name Roundup, trade name/active ingredient glyphosate.

Gillman also explains that the terms Caution, Warning and Danger on labels have very specific meanings. The word Caution on a label means it is the least toxic (but not nontoxic); the word Warning means the product is of greater toxicity; and the word Danger on a label, accompanied by a skull and crossbones, is among the most toxic available. According to Gillman, it is almost never necessary for a gardener to use a product with Danger on the label.

Gillman also explains the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) in Chapter 2. If I’d learned nothing else from this book, learning about EIQs made it worth reading. EIQs are a method of assessing a pesticide’s risk using three criteria: its risk to farm workers (the person applying it); the risk to the consumer of the sprayed product (the person eating the apple); and its risk to the environment (the fish living downstream from the garden). Scores are assigned to each of the criteria and the numbers are averaged, resulting in the EIQ score. This score rates a product’s risk of causing harm to people and the environment. The most toxic products have EIQs around 100, the least-toxic are around 10.

A product’s EIQ isn’t written on its label. The best way to find out what the EIQ of a pesticide is, is to type “environmental impact quotient” in the search engine on your computer. Then look up the EIQ using its trade name.

Chapter 3 begins the “meat” of the book: an analysis of everything from compost to metaldehyde. Gillman even examines biological pesticides, like Bacillus thuringiensis, (Bt) and predatory insects; and interestingly, practices like mulching to control weeds.

For a given product—an example is Rotenone, Gillman writes a few paragraphs about what it is used for, where it comes from, and any notable uses or risks. While Rotenone is an extremely potent insecticide, Gillman says that because it is organic, gardeners who buy it might not observe the handling precautions you would associate with a synthetic pesticide. Rotenone is highly toxic to fish and amphibians if it gets into the water supply, a serious risk if a gardener is sloppy in their application.

He concludes each product description with three points: the benefits of the product, the drawbacks of the product, and “the bottom line”—do the risks outweigh the benefits, or vice-versa? Continuing the discussion of Rotenone, Gillman says this: Benefits—Rotenone is a potent insect poison. Drawbacks—This compound is dangerous to beneficial insects and fish and is more toxic to humans than most other pesticides, organic or synthetic. Bottom Line—Why would any sane person use this pesticide?

Over the years, I’ve read various books and articles about pesticides and organic gardening practices, but this is probably the most useful analysis of a wide variety of products that I’ve read. I guarantee you’ll be fascinated to compare various pesticides side-by-side to get a clear picture of their relative risk.

Every gardener needs learn about pesticides. The Truth About Organic Gardening simplifies this task by presenting good information in an easy-to-follow format.  NWGN

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