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Dandelion days: What will you have to drink?

in Environment/Opinion by

It was a warm spring day at our food co-op as we ran the annual plant exchange. Gardeners with overflowing yards had dropped off excess plants and cuttings, and now those in need of greenery were choosing which plants they would like to take home.

“Excuse me,” said a hesitant voice, “I’m looking for some help with dandelions.” It was one of the neighbours from down the block. “I really need to find a way to deal with all the dandelions in my grass.”

My colleague and I shared a glance. “Well,” I said, “You could always leave them. They are one of the earliest sources of pollen for bees, and they are fun for the kids to pick. You could also eat their leaves.”

Columnist Sylvia Keesmatt.

“On a city lot?” He looked a little grossed out. “Look, I’ve been reading about Round-Up. They say it is safe.”

My colleague looked him in the eye and made her only contribution to the conversation: “Just remember: if you put it on the ground, you drink it.” And she turned back to help other people who were looking for plants.

“What does she mean?” he asked me. “What does she mean, ‘If I put it on the ground, I drink it?’”

“Think of it this way,” I responded, “The soil is not only a source of fertility for plants and a habitat for the insects, bacteria and fungi that keep us alive, but it is also a giant filtration system for our water table. If you put something on the ground, it eventually percolates down to the water table. Or it might not make it that far, it might just wash into a waterway or a storm sewer and out into the lake. Either way, something like Round-Up eventually finds its way to our drinking water.”

“But not Round-Up!” he said, “Round-Up disappears almost immediately after you apply it!”

“Ah, well, that is what the company tells you because they want you to buy it. But, like all herbicides, it is a poison, and it doesn’t disappear.”

“So what should I do about my dandelions?” he asked again.

“You could dig them out,” I suggested. “Or you could decide that you like the look of dandelions in your lawn, and the sound of bees in your garden, and go pick a bouquet for your mother.”

He gave a laugh and walked away.

This conversation stayed with me for a long time. We often forget not only that the soil is a living thing, but that everything we put onto the soil or into our waterways loops back to us. Water evaporates from our lakes to become the rain that falls onto our food, which also draws up water from the soil. Whatever we have put in that soil is not only in our water, but also in our food.

This isn’t limited to what we put directly on the soil, but also what we put down our drains. Every harsh chemical that we use for cleaning, every body care product that contains micro-beads or phthalates, every paintbrush we rinse in the sink, enters our water system, and, eventually our bodies.

But, of course, none of this is new. The conversation I recounted above took place over 20 years ago. Monsanto, the producer of Round-Up has recently lost two court cases in which it was not only shown that they suppressed findings about how deadly Round-Up really is, but the verdict concluded that their product was the cause of cancer.

Most herbicides and pesticides are no longer permitted for cosmetic purposes in Ontario. And consumers are increasingly seeking out environmentally friendly methods of garden care, cleaning and renovating.

I’m not sure that conversation from 20 years ago would happen today. People are increasingly asking themselves, “Do I want to drink this?” Because the moment it touches the soil, it is on its way to our drinking water.

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Sylvia Keesmaat, who lives on an off-grid solar-powered farm in Cameron, has a diploma in Permaculture Design and a doctorate in Biblical Studies. Every summer she and her husband welcome interns to their farm to learn about resilient gardening and farming, and sustainable living. Sylvia is also an Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at the Toronto School of Theology, with a focus on agrarian and anti-imperial readings of the biblical text.

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