Above the Waterline: My Father’s Weed-Free Garden

My father weeding in the garden.

My father has been gone for more than eight years, but I think of him every time I work in my yard or visit a garden store; I still remember our Saturday trips to Hastings on Cheshire Bridge Road, more than 50 years ago, just to “look around.” From selling vegetables grown from seeds to neighbors in his small hometown in Pennsylvania to cultivating orchids in the greenhouse at his retirement home in Atlanta, my father loved gardening.

In my own retirement, I’m trying to follow in his footsteps. I spend many hours, every week, planting, laying pine straw, raking, watering and weeding in my city yard: simple, but satisfying, tasks. My father was not an easy man to please (and he was as hard on himself as others), but I think he would be proud of my gardening passion and the results.

When my father died, my sister and I distributed his possessions, as families do. Looking through yet another box of odds and ends, we found his old gardening tools. I remember the emotions I felt when I saw them, and, as the older (pushier) sister, immediately claimed them for my own. It was his wooden-handled weeder that I really wanted: the simple, inexpensive tool that I had seen him use hundreds of times, while sitting on a stool in whatever garden he was tending. I can imagine his gnarled, arthritic hand grasping the handle, just as I do now. Little  things trigger memories.

I don’t remember my father ever using chemicals to kill weeds. Whether it was his frugality or his concern about their toxicity and potential harm to wildlife, especially his beloved birds, or just the satisfaction he got from weeding, I will never know. But I’m proud that he never succumbed to the “magical powers” of the weed-killers that came on the market to great fanfare in the 1970s.

Today, we understand the dangers that these chemicals pose to people and to the environment: dangers that the companies that manufactured and marketed them always knew, but hid from the public. The truth is finally coming out.

The synthetic compound glyphosate was discovered to be an herbicide (weed-killer) by Monsanto in the early 1970s and patented for that purpose; in 1974, the company brought the chemical to market in the United States under the trade name Roundup. In 1985, the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate was first considered by the U.S. EPA, but, six years later, the agency found “evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans.”

Glyphosate-based herbicides are the world’s most common weed-killers for uses ranging from agriculture and forestry to lawns and gardens. Human exposure occurs when the herbicide is ingested or gets on skin, in eyes, or is inhaled during application; the science about the safety of these chemicals is not settled.

Four years ago, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” A year later, the University of California discovered the chemical in 93 percent of urine samples collected across the U.S.; other tests revealed what some call “alarming levels” of glyphosate in cereal. Internal Monsanto and EPA communications, released in 2017 litigation, showed how the corporation and the federal agency coordinated to downplay safety concerns. The company’s annual profits from herbicide products, mostly Roundup, were reported as nearly $2 billion for 2015.

Several months ago, Trump-appointed EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler issued an “interim review” that said the agency continues to find that there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used as directed and that it is not a carcinogen. EPA has acknowledged that there may be risks to ecological systems.

Three California juries have recently awarded more than $2.2 billion in three separate verdicts against Monsanto (now known as Monsanto-Bayer) over claims that Roundup causes cancer and that the company knew about the risks for decades and went to “extraordinary lengths” to cover it up.

In the first case, a groundskeeper who sprayed Roundup on school properties is terminally ill with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (linked to glyphosate). The jury unanimously agreed that the weed-killer caused his cancer and that Monsanto acted with “malice, oppression or fraud,” when it intentionally concealed that fact. Another major trial is scheduled for August and more than 13,000 lawsuits are pending.

A portrait of my father.

While Roundup and other glyphosate products are easily available in the U.S., the chemical has been banned or restricted in dozens of countries around the world – and in more than 100 cities in this country. Of course, it’s not just Monsanto-Bayer that has actively concealed information about the harmful nature of their products, induced regulators to ignore data, and lied over decades to improve their financial bottom line. Think: Big Tobacco, Big Coal, Dupont and Exxon, to name a few.

When learning, and now reporting on, these disturbing facts becomes too overwhelming, I pick up my father’s simple garden tool and head outside to spend a few, very satisfying, hours, killing weeds.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards. 

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