Monday, 3 June 2013

Ethically bound (Week 8, Friday and Week 9, Monday)

Today, after a bit of tractor practice, which involved removing a trailer with a flat tire and getting a sound one instead, I spent the rest of the day clearing bindweed from around some Pyracantha and Physocarpus shrubs.

Growing bindweed on canes
The accepted way of getting rid of established bindweed is to make it grow around a cane and then spray it with glyphosate.

However, left to myself as I am at the moment, I would always choose cultural, rather than chemical methods of dealing with pests and diseases. And that is what I did today, giving it a good dig and engaging in a bit of root archaeology... ;p

Mine is of course an ethical choice.

I always assume there will be unwanted and unexpected consequences in using chemicals. A child of the 70's I have grown up with the debates on the effects of dioxins and DDT... then a couple of years ago my rather undefined feelings about the topic had the opportunity to take shape more clearly after reading an interesting article by Karl Erik Sveiby on unintended and unexpected consequences (of innovation). Incidentally the same author had first planted a "seed" in my mind that was going to challenge my assumptions on food production and sustainability, a few years earlier, with his co-authored book "Treading lightly".

And glyphosate's unwanted and unexpected consequence seem to be disruption of the endocrine system... scientific studies on its effects are popping up more and more frequently, on both the environment more generally, including invertebrates, and humans, so I do not get too excited about it, despite the claims that it is one of the least toxic herbicides...

I do not really see the point of herbicides at all, to be fair, as most weeds can be relatively easily got rid of with a just a bit of work and patience.

As my interest in ethics and the environment grew, I took a course on environmental responsibility last year and I have just received my results, which is probably why today I spent all the weeding time thinking about the ethics of spraying. I passed my exam with merit, but it looks like I might have got a distinction if I had considered other stakeholders' points of view in more detail in my final project, so that is what I tried to do while digging out all that bindweed.

I identified three main stakeholders, who might have reasons in favour of spraying.

First, I considered the students from the diploma course. They are on a management course and want to do "management" in the garden; most of them find weeding boring and I have a feeling that spraying is instead considered by some a more managerial thing to do, probably because it is perceived as a more "skilled" job. They have no problem in taking out the sprayer, even though most of the time, when asked, they say they had rather not do it. Mind you, I know at least one that, like me, has repeatedly spoke up against spraying.

If I look at it from the point of view of a manager with limited resources, on the other hand, I may think that spraying is quicker and I will get my resources freed up for more "important" jobs to do. I would have to take into account the cost of the chemicals and the safety issues involved, but glyphosate is marketed as safe and there are no special restrictions on its use. But is it really quicker? How long does an application last?

I would like to carry out some experiments and see how long my bindweed, carefully pulled out from the roots as deep as I could reach, takes to come back, as opposed to the one that has been staked and is going to be sprayed.

As the third group of stakeholders, I thought of the curators of a collection. If a specimen was fragile and rare, you might not want to have a rummage around its root, or even to move it around. Spraying might be the best option to keep it free of competition, provided it does not do any damage to the plant itself. But the plant I was working under was a Pyracantha coccinea, so I took the decision it would be allright.

It is all theoretical because I never had the opportunity to ask the question to anyone in those categories, except for the students. I have not made a strong case for them, have I? In fact, at the end of my assessment, I am still convinced the cultural method is the most effective, least damaging way to the environment and the people that work with the plants, and in the soil, all day. I do not think a small patch of weeds in ornamental horticulture justifies the pollution to the soil and water table, and any kind of health risks even if "just" to frogs. What goes around comes around. But that is because my ethics values the health of people and the environment most than the cost of resources, including my own energies, and because the plant I was working around was not a rare or endangered specimen.

It would be interesting if anyone belonging to those stakeholder groups would comment on this post.

Anyway, it took me two half days to clear that rather large patch.

The patch of bindweed

A sample of thick roots

Some roots were rather thick. Thicker than I have ever seen on my plot back at home, so they must have been growing for a while. I carefully pulled them out (how easy it is in the sand, compared to chalky soil!) without snapping them, from as deep as I could reach, with the help of a hand fork. I made sure I cleared the ones around the Pyracantha stems at the base too.

.After my first half day...
... going...
... and gone!

Now the bed is free from bindweed, clean and tidy, and the Pyracantha is competition free. What remains to do is wait and see.

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