Posted: May 17, 2010, 1:50 PM by NP Editor
Peter Shawn Taylor, Ontario, pesticides
Dandelions have become the dominant ground cover for lawns, parks, school yards and sports fields
Provincial politicians often promise that their province won’t look the same once they’re done. Usually, they’re talking about taxes, jobs, education or the laws of the land. While these are all important issues, they frankly don’t have much physical presence in everyday life. Your street generally looks the same regardless of who’s in power.
Not so in Ontario. Over the past year Premier Dalton McGuinty has managed to alter the physical appearance of his province. Every front yard is now uglier.
It’s been a year and a month since the McGuinty government introduced legislation banning the use of pesticides everywhere except golf courses and farms. As a result weeds, primarily dandelions, have become the dominant ground cover for lawns, parks, school yards and sports fields across the province.
It took a while for the full impact of this ban to become apparent. Last year, many lawns seemed to retain vestigial protection against weeds due to previous pesticide treatments. Now, however, the weeds are here to stay. Forever. Residential streetscapes have switched from green to yellow. To white and fluffy. And back to yellow again.
It’s important to remember this effort was entirely political. There’s no reliable scientific evidence that regulated pesticides, when used correctly, pose any threat to human health. Ignoring the work of the federal government’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency, McGuinty blithely declared a sweeping ban was necessary for “our childrens’ health.” No other jurisdiction in North America went so far in forbidding chemical weed control.
Yet a weed-free lush grass lawn or field has many practical benefits. For one, grass acts as a natural cushion. It is also an effective sponge for rain water. A sports field entirely overrun by dandelions provides none of these benefits. When it rains it becomes a slippery mud bog. In hot months: a concrete-like surface. Not only does this make it difficult to play sports, but it’s dangerous as well. Falling on hard-baked playground mud is, speaking from parental experience, the direct cause of numerous skinned knees and twisted ankles. McGuinty’s crusade on behalf of children’s health is actually hurting kids on a daily basis.
It’s also the case that many, most likely a majority, of people consider a uniform green lawn to be a thing of beauty and an object of desire. From this perspective, the pesticide law represents an effort to dictate aesthetics. Various propaganda claims there’s nothing wrong with a weedy, yellow-dotted lawn — everyone should simply learn to appreciate the wondrous joys of dandelions. Or put in a rock garden. But that’s a matter of opinion. On what basis should the state give itself a mandate over beauty?
Of course, even the McGuinty government seems to recognize these efforts haven’t really convinced homeowners to love ugly lawns. A provincial website also offers tips for a weed-free yard without pesticides. “Pluck weeds by hand,” it cheerily declares. “Get a weeding tool and the job will be faster and easier.” With more practical options outlawed, this advice appears to have stuck. In my neighbourhood, it seems every second homeowner is now outside on Saturday afternoons diligently plucking and pulling at an endless supply of weeds. No one looks very happy; probably because it’s an entirely Sisyphean task.
Curiously, McGuinty has another major preoccupation besides banning things and fretting about children. Earlier this year, his government released a substantial report on the long-term prospects for the economy. Chief among its issues was a commitment to improving productivity. “Encouraging faster productivity growth” was presented as a crucial step to defending the provincial standard of living.
And yet it is difficult to imagine anything more unproductive than forcing every home owner in the province to abandon a perfectly safe, modern and efficient means of weed control in favour of a method that can only be described as medieval. The ban thus represents an enormous deadweight loss for the province. Even if we assume time spent hand-weeding on weekends would otherwise be allocated to yard maintenance, the provincial net worth could be vastly enhanced if everyone was spending those hours painting fences, repairing decks and trimming hedges.
For elderly residents, many of whom take great pride in their gardens and yards, hand pulling may not only be unproductive, but physically impossible. Denied the use of better, labour-saving methods of weed control, many retirees have simply lost the ability to tend to their own yard. All of which suggests we haven’t heard the last on this issue. And Heaven help the politician who ends up taking the blame for everyone’s ugly lawn.
Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s magazine. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.