Thursday, June 08, 2006

Our world today is being bathed in poisons. In the UK alone, 31,000 tonnes are used annually according to a recent issue of The Ecologist. It has been noticed that spraying occasions sickness, not only in those doing the spraying, but in the 'innocent bystanders' who happen to be in the vicinity. One such bystander was Georgina Downs of England, who inquired of the local farmer what chemical he was using. She was given no reply, and told by the authorities that she was owed none.
Downs took her case to the politicians, and they were at first little more welcoming than the farmer. Ultimately, however, she forced their hand, although only a bit. Farmers are now required to keep a log of what they spray, and they have to keep a 3 metre distance from their neighbours. This, of course, does not do a lot; Downs has been contacted by scores of people who are suffering due to the chemicals sprayed on the fields, which reach out a lot further than 3 metres. In fact, these chemicals can travel thousands of miles. They also affect wildlife; in a recent study, Swainson's Hawks were found to be dying from a new neurotoxin sprayed in South America, with as many as 4,000 hawks dead in one area. As these hawks die, pests thrive; the spraying is counter-productive.
On the other hand, to be fair to farmers, there are crops that might not make it to market without some pesticide. Cotton, for instance, and this fibre crop uses up to 50% of the world's pesticides. Those working with cotton often die young. Those wearing cotton in the West, however, often look cool in designer garb or well-pressed professional attire.
What can we offer to farmers in its place? We clothed ourselves for millenia with other substances, from fig leaves to feathers, certainly we can scratch those great Homo sapien brains and find an alternative? We did use linen, jute, ramie, silk, hemp and even nettles at some point in our history, so it is not a difficult quest.
Linen is a good choice, although it grows in wet, boggy areas, and so is limited to certain climates, as is cotton, which is rather a warm-weather friend. Jute is a bit too rough; ramie smooth and silky, but not produced in enough quantity to satisfy demand; silk is also smooth, but a bit expensive for many people, and nettles, which were taken up with passion recently, never did quite convince the farmers to plant acres of this mostly unwanted species.
Hemp is a plant suitable for cultivation in almost any country, historically it has been grown in Russia, including Siberia, and currently it is under cultivation in Kenya. In contrast to most of the others on the list, the hemp plant produces other products, so it can also provide a protein-rich oil and medicine, making it a valuable commercial crop.
It has also been used as a pesticide, planted alongside crops the same way garlic and marigolds are used to deter unwanted creatures. It requires little or no pesticides to cultivate, so a farmer's neighbours need not be knocking on doors asking to see the list of chemicals used as they gasp for breath. If we could eliminate our use of pesticides by 50%, we could save a lot of humans...and hawks.
But, as the story of Ms. Downs demonstrates, this is not without work, we must knock on the doors of the politicians. Michael Meacher, a former UK environment minister, said she was the kind of person that politicians dread because she is so persistant. Without people like her, we may all end up like those hawks who wintered in South America and ingested or consumed neurotoxins.
With a plant like hemp, we may provide an answer. The more hemp is planted, replacing crops like cotton, the less we have to worry. In addition, some of the compounds in the hemp plant merit more study for their pesticidal qualities, which would give us natural pesticides we can live with when we do need to use such substances.

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