The pesticide debate
I enjoy twitter (@AlysFowler) for all sorts of reasons - the banter, the140-characters insight into other people's minds. You can follow the rich, famous and downright crackpot. That, and it is a very good place for debate (though clearly the crackpot can throw the argument into some very odd corners).
One of the people I follow is Phil from Landscape Juice (@LandscapeJuice). He runs an online network for the landscape and horticultural industry and is a prolific blogger. We had a little debate a while back following one of his posts; it's about whether banning pesticides in public places could work?
I was interested in this debate as I read a similar article whilst I was in America. New York State is banning chemical use (pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers) in schools and athletics fields from May 2011.
They decided to do this after Grassroots Environmental Educations, a campaigning body that is dedicated ‘to educating the public about links between common environmental toxins and human health’, put together a case for an alternative. Their report showed that organic practices in the long term would be cheaper.
Though even they agreed that the argument was won on health implications rather than money in the end.
Now clearly I’m going to sit firmly in the organic camp. I think that long term we will have to learn to rely on cultivation techniques and with this there will have to be a sea change in how we view our green spaces - perfectly manicured rose beds in a climate of economical cuts and limited labour resources may just not be the right thing anymore.
A wilder approach whether it's more grassland or wild flower meadows will probably look more chaotic, may be more rich in biodiversity, cheaper to look after and perhaps, dare I say it, more aesthetically pleasing than the old school flowerbeds (well at least more pleasing than the tortured rose beds in my park).
But in the short term, as Phil points out, that quite a lot to ask of a cash strapped park manager or council worker. Although chemicals are not cheap anymore, they are certainly cheaper than labour costs and the initial outlay of moving over to organic management is expensive.
Asking everyone to give up his or her knapsack sprayers for a hoe is just not a viable option yet. The sort of skills needed to manage a space using cultural techniques rather than grabbing a bottle comes down to one thing: skills.
We’ve got a skills shortage and there’s not going to be any money for consultants or re-training anytime soon. There's a huge gap between the wages someone needs to earn to live and the sort of money you could offer someone to do a potentially menial job.
So how do we go about fixing this problem? One answer is that it might just get too expensive to buy chemicals in the future, particularly if you subscribe to the idea of a looming peak oil crisis, chemicals need energy to be manufactured. In which case we’ll need a little creative thinking. Perhaps we could bring back pasture management to some of our larger spaces. I’m all for seeing some urban shepherds and flock of sheep whilst I go to the allotment.
Another solution might be to engage more active participation from the community. My local park has a community coppicing programme where volunteers help to manage the woodlands areas. But the Big Society is increasingly going to ask an awful lot from communities - would weeding really be a priority over libraries or health care?
Alys Fowler is a garden writer and presenter of BBC Gardeners' World.