When I was a child in a southern Minnesota farm town, summers were filled with bird music, bee hum, firefly light and frog song. Then the city sprayed with what I presume was DDT. A great silence followed that fogger.
In 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson's bestseller "Silent Spring," an indictment of DDT, appeared and led to a ban on the pesticide by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1972.
As an adult, I watched a growing range of chemicals being linked to rises in cancer, nerve damage, obesity, endocrine disruption, death and deformities (frogs, alligators) and die-offs (birds, pollinators, fish) in the natural world. As a journalist, I sometimes wrote about the effects of man-made chemicals and, in particular, the consequences of pesticide and herbicide use.
Now Minnesota stands on the cusp of passing some of the most enlightened legislation in the nation to protect human and ecosystem health. With a handful of bills slated to be heard in the Legislature, we may have reached a critical mass of scientific documentation, legislative smarts and public understanding that could result in a state that is cleaner, safer and healthier for people, pets and vital pollinators.
The pending bills give communities local control over pesticides (HF 718), set rules for pesticide-coated corn and soy seed to avoid contamination (HF 766), prohibit neonicotinoid systemic pesticides (aka "neonics") and chlorpyrifos (insecticide) in protected wildlife areas (HF 1210), impose a statewide ban on chlorpyrifos (HF 670) and increase pollinator-lethal insecticide fees with revenue allocated to pollinator research (HF 408).
Decades of study by institutions including Cornell University, Harvard University's School of Public Health, Rutgers University and consumer protection groups show correlations between pesticides and the current insect apocalypse, rises in cancer and pet illness and deaths, and damage to child development.
DDT may have gone, but neonics are far more powerful. Results of a study by the University Koblenz and Landau in Germany, published in Science magazine on April 1, finds "that the toxicity of applied insecticides to aquatic invertebrates and pollinators has increased considerably."
"These are extremely challenging and complex issues, and Minnesota is offering a number of innovative ways to respond to much-needed protections," says Aimée Code, pesticide program director of the nonprofit Xerces Society based in Portland, Ore. "Across the country people are seeking answers, and states are looking at what is happening in Minnesota. Minnesota has been creative in seeking solutions through such actions as the Lawns to Legumes program and efforts to label pesticides, to ratchet down pesticide use, to create more bio-sensitive and sustainable agriculture and to give farmers incentives to not use treated seed.
"Currently, [people] think pest control and pesticide are synonymous, and that pesticides should be a first line of defense, " Code explained. "The vast majority of our invertebrates are foundational species that offer ecological services — everything from pest management, to help filtering our water, to pollination. Chemical pesticides have become ingrained in our agriculture and homeowner practices. We have to think of smarter solutions."
As farmers, consumers and legislative bodies continue to get smarter about solutions, neonics were banned for outdoor use in the European Union in 2018. Legislation pending in New York, California, Alaska and Massachusetts would do likewise.
Mac Ehrhardt is co-owner of the Albert Lea Seed House, a third generation family firm that put certified organic seed on its menu in 1998. The latter is a small but increasing percentage of Seed House business, he says. And while a majority of farmers purchase seed there based on costs, others recognize the concerns around chemicals.
What is also new on the issue, Ehrhardt says, is "we are getting legislators brave enough to stand up and do what is right even though they know a percentage of constituents will be angry with them."
The Minnesota bills reflect an understanding that what affects insects, plants and animals affects humans as well.
"The evidence is very clear that neonics can be found throughout the environment now in places they are not expected to be," says Jonathan Lundgren, an agroecologist, director of ECDYSIS Foundation, CEO of Blue Dasher Farm in Estilline, S.D., and former U.S. Department of Agriculture award-winning entomologist. Lundgren's recent study of white tail deer spleens demonstrates that the world's most widely used pesticide class today has negative effects on mammals.
"This has implications for our ecosystem that farmers and legislators alike can appreciate. The response from the ag chem industry is to say their products are safe and helping farmers, but the data really doesn't support that. Neonics and other chemicals simply aren't necessary. Farmers are developing systems that make the pesticide question kind of moot. Regenerative farming is proving to be more resilient and more profitable. The scientists got it, and farmers are getting it."
Karin Winegar, of St. Paul, is a freelance journalist and former Star Tribune staff writer.