Friday, March 19, 2010

Anti-lawn-pesticide film shows in Chicago tomorrow

Looks like an interesting afternoon tomorrow, just as this warm weather is sending a lot of people to the home center to buy the biggest possible bag of weed-and-feed.

“A Chemical Reaction: The Story of a True Green Revolution” will be shown at Columbia College’s Ferguson Auditorium, 600 S. Michigan Ave., from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 20. It's presented by the Safer Pest Control Project,, Chickity Doo Doo and Grant Park Conservancy. Suggested donation is $10. Columbia College students will be admitted free with ID.

The documentary -- or polemic, depending on your point of view -- chronicles how residents of Hudson, Quebec, persuaded their local officials to ban lawn and garden pesticides there, based on health risks. Their actions were upheld 9-0 by the Canadian Supreme Court in 2001. Since then, the provinces of Alberta, Quebec and Ontario and dozens of Canadian cities enacted bans or strong restrictions on on lawn pesticides and British Columbia and Nova Scotia are considering them.

The notion that it isn't worth even a possible risk to the health of children by spreading poisons on lawns has spread south. Connecticut banned lawn pesticides around school day-care centers in 2006.

The film will be followed by panel discussion with the documentary's spokesman, Paul Tukey, founder of; Rachel Rosenberg, executive director of the Safer Pest Control Project, which campaigns against the use of lawn pesticides; my friend Mike Nowak, WCPT Radio host and local green/gardening expert; and Steve Neumann, co-owner of Clean Air Lawn Care Chicago, a company that does natural lawn care.

Note that there is no representative of the conventional lawn care industry on the panel. It will be interesting to see if any show up to see the film.

There are about 70,000 landscaping service companies in the country, with annual revenues of about $50 billion, according to Some are tree care companies or are more diversified, but for the majority the bread and butter is conventional lawn care: A standard package of mowing, chemical weed control and synthetic fertilizers.

Then there are the chemical companies that provide the products to both professionals and homeowners who have been trained for decades by advertising to assume that regular application of blue chemical crystals is what every lawn needs. These businesses are terrified at the threat to their livelihoods from the prospect of pesticide bans.

I've started to see signs of change, though. Some companies are just trying to find new ways to market themselves differently without changing their basic practices. They still firmly believe that everybody loves their lawns and that the only way to have a healthy, attractive lawn is their way.

But some others are really thinking about it. I've seen articles in the trade journals explaining how a lawn can be maintained without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Some businesses are earnestly trying to figure out how to make a living by doing lawn care differently.

So far, there's not a lot of financial pressure for them to do anything differently. Research shows that about half of Americans don't do anything to their lawns anyhow, except mow. The other half is mostly still doing what the ads have taught them to do, or are unconcernedly hiring lawn care services. Only a small minority of people with lawns are aware of the pesticide issue.

But that minority is growing -- driven not by an altruistic concern about the health of the world environment, but by people's personal concerns about their own safety. Polls show the concern increasing. And the lawn care industry is well aware of it. Canadian companies are still fighting the pesticide bans and U.S. companies are armed against such efforts here.

Businesses always fight fiercely against any change in their practices and against any government regulation. They fought the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. But once those laws passed, guess what? They learned to deal.

The most interesting reaction I've seen to the current nationwide tour of "A Chemical Reaction" came from Ellen Wells, editor at large of Ball Publishing's garden center trade magazine, "Green Profit." In her e-mail newsletter, "Buzz," she listed the film's play dates around the country and suggested that local garden centers plan to be well-stocked with organic lawn care products on those weekends.

That's the smart side of the landscape industry talking. There's change happening, a big, deep change in values about our relationship with the outdoors. The companies that cash in on that change will be the ones that get ahead of it, rather than spending their energies deflecting or kicking and screaming.

The Safer Pest Control Project, incidentally, doesn't just protest and call for bans. They provide information for homeowners on how to maintain lawns without pesticides (see their Web site at or call 773-878-7378.) And more interestingly, they hold natural turf management training for landscape businesses, to help them understand how it can be done and move them along toward adapting. (There's a session coming up March 29 and 30 in Milwaukee.)

Here's some data from the press release sent out by Greenmark Public Relations, which represents SPCP:

"According to experts, 78 million U.S. households use home and garden pesticides, spreading 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides on lawns annually. Americans spend $700 million each year on pesticides for green, weed-free lawns – using three times as much on lawns per acre than on agricultural crops."

I'm not sure whether I will be able to get to the screening; I have a press of other things to do tomorrow. But I'm sure you'll hear all about it from Mike on his "Mike Nowak Show" from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WCPT-820 AM.

Got a garden question? I recommend you call or e-mail the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension or the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe .

All contents of this post are copyright Beth Botts. Feel free to link or share a brief excerpt with a link, but please do not reproduce photos or any other part of this blog without my express permission.

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