Greenwashing Poison

Pesticide industry adopts eco-talk to stop ban

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Fearing a ban on pesticide spraying on private property, the weed-whacking biz is putting on the full court press at City Hall. Not since a consortium of private interests wanted to dump Toronto’s garbage into a northern open-pit mine has there been this kind of pressure.

But last year’s Supreme Court of Canada decision upholding a Quebec municipality’s pesticide ban, along with a call from Toronto’s own medical officer of health, Sheela Basrur, for a phase-out, has set the industry on its heels and has turned them into political dandelions — these guys are popping up everywhere.

A plethora of organizations and umbrella groups now represent the interests of those making profits from poisons — many of them adopting the vocabulary of the ecology movement.

Last fall, for example, half a dozen local spray companies, including Weed Man, Dr. Green Services, Green Lawn Care, Weed-A-Way, Hometurf and Frechette Lawncare, formed the Toronto Environmental Coalition (TEC) to make their case at City Hall.

The group actually came up with the name during a meeting with their then lobbyist, S. A. Murray Consulting Inc. As the chair of the coalition, Dan Passmore of Frechette Lawncare, explains, “We had engaged SAMCI on our behalf to do some initial lobbying with the city of Toronto.”

The coalition has since dropped SAMCI and hired City Hall heavy hitter Jeff Lyons. (Lobbyist Lyons is currently in a dust-up over alleged Municipal Elections Act violations.)

“We needed some guidance for seeing councillors,” says Passmore. Lyons did not return NOW’s calls.

The other side of the industry’s one-two punch is Landscape Ontario, the horticultural trades association that represents dozens of landscape contractors and maintenance companies as well as the chemical sprayers.

Landscape Ontario has also hired SAMCI in the past to help craft its strategy. “SAMCI’s tactic was, “Well, get your customers to write letters,’ because in the final analysis councillors represent the homeowners. Our members actually get paid by their constituents to do the job,” says Landscape Ontario executive director Tony Di Giovanni. He says he’s collected 14,000 letters so far.

Both TEC’s and Landscape Ontario’s strategy is to push what they call an “Integrated Pest Management” plan on the city. By this they mean limiting pesticide use by accrediting sprayers, subjecting them to third-party audits of their pesticide use and compelling them to offer customers a pesticide-free alternative if they request it — anything to head off the growing call for an out-and-out ban.

“What I’ve tried to do with that is take the message that are common-ground messages — they’re the same activist messages as the industry messages, there’s no real difference,” says Di Giovanni. “The only big difference is, one says “total ban’ and we say, “No, reductions are fine — use (pesticides) only when required, responsibly.'”

Landscape Ontario is actually one of half a dozen members of something called the Integrated Pest Management Council of Ontario, which is made up of umbrella organizations that represent, among others, chemical spray producers Monsanto and Dow.

Not surprisingly, some councillors have their doubts about whether the industry can self-regulate.

“I look forward to the industry putting forward aggressive campaigns to reduce pesticides,” says city councillor and Toronto board of health chair Joe Mihevc. But he adds, “There’s a lot of self-interest involved here that’s going to make it hard for them to put in place the kind of protocols and bylaws and self-regulation to make this really an effective strategy.”

The industry’s other tactics have been to downplay the actual use of pesticides (they say only 1 per cent of all pesticides in Canada are sprayed by lawn care companies in urban areas), portray them as safe and attack studies of their hazards as junk science.

Passmore says TEC is currently reviewing Sheela Basrurs’s April report, Playing It Safe: Healthy Choices About Lawn Care Pesticides, which summarizes the health risks.

The industry has had some success in bringing councillors on side. Last month at a meeting of the economic development and parks committee, councillor Chris Korwin-Kuczynski put forward a motion that carried, calling on the board of health to postpone its public consultations until the city produces a report on the impact a pesticide ban would have on business.

“When you go to the community and make presentations, you should have a package deal. You should have all the information,” says Korwin-Kuczyski. The board of health, however, ignored the motion and went ahead with the hearings.

“There was no logic to (the motion). It was just, “How can we harass the board of health?'” says councillor John Filion, who also sits on the economic development committee and opposed the motion.

But that wasn’t the end of the harassment. Councillor Norm Kelley, who has just been appointed to the board of health, wrote a piece for the Chinese World Journal that was published last Friday, May 24, charging that Basrur’s position on pesticides is not based on sound science but on political considerations. “If Basrur continues to politicize her role,” he concluded, “she should resign from her post.”

“It’s her job to give council the best scientific advice she can find, and she’s not doing it in this instance,” Kelley tells NOW.

But more than a few of Kelley’s council colleagues disagree.

Says Mihevc, “There is enough science there that the medical officer of health feels that the precautionary principle should apply, and that is, don’t use (pesticides) if you can avoid them.”

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