Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"You Bet Your Garden" Radio Show Spreading Misinformation About Invasive Species

Does misinformation behave like invasive species, spreading into people's minds, eluding normal checks and balances and resisting attempts to root it out? If so, the otherwise entertaining NPR radio program "You Bet Your Garden" is proving to be a primary means of distribution. Surprisingly, its website contains some of the most misleading and needlessly accusatory writings about invasive species to be found. The author and show host, Mike McGrath, is known for his big opinions about gardening--opinions that in this case prove to be wrong in a big way. As can be seen in the critique of two of his postings below, he uses now-familiar techniques to attack those of us who are concerned about the impact invasive species are having on forests, fields, and people's yards. The two postings critiqued here are particularly irresponsible given the apparent size of McGrath's audience.

A closer look at his postings shows that he may have "drunk the Kool-Aid" at some point, because two posts express a mainstream concern about the invasiveness demonstrated by plants like morning glory and Japanese honeysuckle, while two other posts, perhaps more recent, are riddled with conspicuous omissions and misinformation that then lead to reckless accusations.

Because this false narrative about nature is showing up in otherwise respectable outlets like NPR and the New York Times (critiques here and here), it's important to thoroughly dismantle the assertions being made.

Here is the most egregious post on McGrath's website, beginning with a listener's question. Indented paragraphs are quotes from his two posts, interspersed with my critiques. The headings in bold are a means of categorizing the tactics used.
Lesser celandine—for some, a Bitter Buttercup!
Q. We are in the process of restoring a Lehigh River bank with native plants. But the over 2000 beautiful spring natives we've put in are being choked by a thick blanket of lesser celandine that flourishes during the peak bloom of such natives as Dutchman's BreechesVirginia Bluebells, Trillium and Trout Lilies. It was recommended that we use Roundup in February before the natives come up. I understand that the glyphosate in the Roundup is not severely evil. However the size of our area would require a major grant to purchase the amount we'd need. Pulling is tricky as the celandine produces little tubers along their roots that can stay behind. What are your thoughts on this? Literally hundreds of acres are affected.
    ---Ilse in Bethlehem
A. When tested by University of Pittsburgh researcher Dr. Rick Relyea, the active ingredient in the herbicide 'Roundup' (glyphosate) was found to be relatively innocuous to the amphibians he studies. But in real life the active ingredient is never used alone, and when Dr. Relyea usedactual Roundup purchased at retail, it wiped out massive numbers of frogs, toads and other amphibians. The surfactants and other so-called 'inert' ingredients in such chemical herbicides appear to be far from inert—or innocuous. (And they are considered trade secrets by the EPA and therefore do not legally need to be disclosed.) 
Important information withheld: In the paragraph quoted above, McGrath should know, and say, that there are wetland-safe formulations of glyphosate, with Rodeo being the best-known example. He also fails to point out that, since Monsanto's patent expired years ago, glyphosate has long been available from other companies, so there's no need to support Monsanto.

"Luckily, Round-Up is not approved for use near water, and I doubt anyone would invite Federal prosecution by writing you that big grant check." 
Threats based on misinformation: In the sentence above, McGrath actually adopts a bullying tone. He's suggesting that the woman seeking to save her watershed from a vast invasion of lesser celandine, and anyone who funded her work, could be prosecuted. He can only come to this false conclusion by remaining strangely unaware of wetland safe formulations of glyphosate.

"And hundreds of acres?! Removal of such a large number of plants along a river bank in any manner would lead to severe environmental devastation. And for what? To be able to risk replacing a plant that produces pretty yellow buttercup-like flowers and does a magnificent job of preventing erosion with different plants that thrived in a different era and may no longer have what it takes to compete in a world that's been dramatically changed by the presence of humans? 
Drinking the ideological Kool-Aid: In the paragraph above, McGrath takes some truth and warps it with propaganda. Lesser celandine is indeed pretty. Any effort to eliminate it over hundreds of acres would be disruptive and almost certain to fail. The hydrology of river valleys has in some cases been altered, favoring invasive species more tolerant of destabilized hydrology. But if you've read other defenses of invasive plants, you'll notice the similarities: An invasive plant's good qualities (beauty, erosion control--the latter may be questionable, because lesser celandine's leaves disappear in early summer, leaving the ground exposed to wind and rain) are offered as somehow compensating completely for the ecological disruption it causes. The interest in bringing back native species is characterized as sentimental, and the natives themselves are presumed too weak to make it in today's world.

By opposing action against invasive lesser celandine, McGrath echoes the logic of those opposed to taking action on climate change. Here is a recasting of his paragraph in terms of climate change, using the same sentence structure and logic: Any attempt to remove fossil fuels from our lives will devastate the economy. And for what? To deny Canada a warmer climate and force us to continue enduring cold winters, while denying us all the comforts and freedom fossil fuels make possible?

"Nature doesn't favor natives—or so called 'invaders'. Nature simply provides a canvas, and the rules of Darwin decide the winners. It's not the same river as when those other plants first flourished; human activity has changed everything about it and the area around it. The best I can suggest is that you establish a nearby area that you can protect with deep edging in which to show off your natives. Any attempts to remove that much celandine will be expensive, time-consuming, immensely destructive to the environment, and run a high risk of failure." 
Denial of co-evolution and ecology: Native plants are characterized, in the paragraph above, like some political ideologies characterize the poor, essentially as losers unfit for today's world, and therefore not deserving of any assistance. He willfully ignores the reason natives are important, and why the nonnative lesser celandine has such a competitive advantage. Through thousands of years of association with native plants, the native wildlife--insects, deer, etc.--have learned to eat them, not only their fruits but importantly their foliage as well. In this way, the solar energy collected by plants can move up the foodchain, supporting a thriving, diverse ecological community. An introduced plant like lesser celandine, poisonous as it turns out, may have had predators where it originally evolved, but has left those behind, and is left uneaten by the local wildlife. In its new environs, it therefore has an enormous competitive advantage. As it displaces native species, there's less and less food for the local wildlife. That's a big problem that McGrath, who is a gardener, not an ecologist, chooses to ignore.

"BUT you might be able to get it out of some small areas to help establish that refuge without causing too much damage. There is a new class of alternative broadleaf herbicide that uses Iron as its active ingredient—and it's specifically labeled for use on this plant (although the label just calls it "creeping buttercup", they clearly mean lesser celandine). Just go slowly, and try and keep it away from that priceless waterway as much as possible, as all herbicides must contain some type of surfactant or they won't work. 
Luckily, the surfactants and other inactive ingredients in natural products like this are designed to be gentle on the environment. And iron isn't a hormonal disruptor, like Roundup and many of the other chemical herbicides.  
And smothering the plants with wood ashes is an ancient tactic I found suggested in the lesser celandine article at a wonderful "Modern Herbal" website, www.botanical.com. This might be another nice experiment for a small area. But please don't mess with any right near the river; lesser celandine is virtually invulnerable in wet areas, and the erosion you'd cause trying to get it out would be immense. "
Skewed advice: Somehow, in the paragraphs above, McGrath assumes that all surfactants in chemical herbicides are bad, while those in "natural products"--he links to a product he happens to sell--can be okay. McGrath, having sworn off using manufactured herbicides like glyphosate, must then characterize all chemicals as bad, and recommend products that range from the untested to the highly dubious. Ideological purity in organic gardening and farming is commendable, but shouldn't be imposed on land managers dealing with hundreds of acres of nature preserves with little or no budget. In a condescending way, he assumes people trying to restore native habitats have unlimited time to apply untested and almost certainly less effective products. Like medicine, herbicides have differing toxicities, and can be used in an intelligent and carefully prescribed manner. Their abuse and overuse in industrial farming is as terrifying to nature preserve managers as anyone else, because it hastens the evolution of resistant weeds and makes farms less hospitable to species like monarch butterflies.

Note, too, that McGrath describes the waterway as "priceless", while not even mentioning the value of the terrestrial ecology that has been altered by the invasion of lesser celandine.

The post continues with a response to another listener's question about lesser celandine:

Q. We have a two-fold invasion of lesser celandine; in my planting beds and throughout our new lawn. There's so much in the lawn that we can't spot spray to get rid of it—it would kill the lawn, too. Thanks for any advice!
    ---Jen in Southeastern PA
Little help for besieged homeowners: In this second question, above, yet another homeowner has lost control over her lawn and garden, due to an invasion by lesser celandine. Many people have told me of the distress this causes them. In response, McGrath offers time-consuming and likely ineffective remedies, described below.
"First, test the lawn's soil; if the pH is low, add wood ashes to raise it to neutral and go heavy on the ashes overtop of the lesser celandine. By all means, try an iron-based herbicide as well. 
And then care for the lawn correctly! Your location—in the mid-Atlantic/Northern part of the country—strongly suggests that, unless its zoysia, your lawn is composed of cool-season grasses. So for you, 'correct' means: never cut it below three inches, never cut it during a dry heat wave, and feed it only in the Spring and Fall. 
And, as lesser celandine craves moisture, make sure you don't overwater the lawn. If we don't get rain, waterdeeply, but only once a week. If you see you're making headway, aerate the turf this fall to improve the drainage. (But if your lawn is always wet, you'll have to install drain tiles to fix the problem and start over to keep the celandine out. This weed beats grass any day in a sopping wet environment.) 
Dig it out of the flower beds relentlessly. Be persistent, get the below-ground tubers, and be sure to get it out earlyin the season—before it drops little seed-like things that also grow new plants, just like the underground tubers. (To quote the Modern Herbal website: "In the early summer, when the leaves and stems are dying down, grains drop to the ground, each capable of producing a new plant." ) 
Then cover any bare ground in the flower beds well with shredded leaves or other non-wood mulch and install deep edging to keep the celandine out. And again, don't overwater!"
More Kool-Aid, and an ugly accusation: Relevant to the paragraph quoted below, part of the ideological Kool-Aid that McGrath has drunk and is now sharing is that action against invasive species is futile. We see similarly pessimistic assumptions driving the resistance to action on climate change. He mentions dismissively a "hit list", which refers to lists of invasive species that homeowners should beware of. These are imperfect lists, but they are helpful to any homeowner wishing not to contribute to the ecological problems caused by invasive species.

Saving the worst for last, McGrath accuses the ecologically-minded people who developed invasive species lists of being in cahoots with corporate giant Monsanto. The land managers I know use herbicide in very small, targeted amounts--a little dab on the cut stump of an invasive shrub, here and there. People looking for someone or some thing to demonize typically imagine a big, pervasive enemy, wanton spraying from giant machines. McGrath's accusation, unsubstantiated of course, is both comic and offensive.
And please dear listeners and readers, don't go around trying to wipe this plant out everywhere you see it because it's on some hit list. It's not going to go away—and that 'hit list' may well have been instigated by Monsanto or some other herbicide producer. Lesser celandine stabilizes wetland areas brilliantly, and the buttercup-like flowers are breathtaking in the Spring, inspiring literary tributes by the likes of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, D. H. Lawrence, and—most famously, the poet Wordsworth who wrote: 
"Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies; Let them live upon their praises;…There's a flower that shall be mine'Tis the little Celandine."

People first, nature second: McGrath ends with quotes about how Wordsworth and others enjoy the aesthetics of lesser celandine. Again, this puts human interests ahead of nature's ecological functions.

In another post, "Another way to look at invasive plants", McGrath's response offers more examples of the strategies people use to dismiss the damage done by invasive species, and to demonize those who take the threat seriously. Here are some excerpts:
"Bottom line: No chemical herbicide is even remotely safe for people and the environment, and the current and unfortunate tendency to spray first and ask questions later (if ever) must be changed if we want to seriously lower the cancer rate and reverse our degradation of the environment."
Zero tolerance, in the name of tolerance: In the paragraph above, he shows zero tolerance for chemical herbicides, lumping them together as all being too toxic to use. Ironically, this zero tolerance is juxtaposed with, and used in the service of, a supposedly open-minded view of invasive species, which he thinks are wrongly maligned. The satirist Tom Lehrer has a famous line that captures this irony of people committing the very sort of prejudice they feign to oppose: "I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that."

A few good qualities supposedly compensate for any invasive properties: In the paragraph below, his woods "is full of" multiflora rose because the wildlife can't, or won't, eat it. Therefore, the sun's energy captured by plantlife, which to a large extent now consists of multiflora rose, isn't moving up the foodchain, and the local web of life suffers. It's nice that his wife likes the flowers, the rosehips may provide some food for wildlife, the shrub provides cover and erosion control--all good. But native plant species, meaning those that have evolved with the wildlife over thousands of years, provide all of these benefits plus foliage vital to the wildlife. And thick walls of thorny multiflora rose have transformed our nature preserves into daunting, menacing places for anyone wishing to experience nature.

"Multiflora rose is, like many now-unwanted plants, a deliberate import that was heavily promoted for agricultural use as a 'living fence' and erosion controller. My woods are full of it, and this season it bloomed like mad, making me a liar for saying so often that the flowers are unattractive because they looked sensational. And they so heavily scented the air with a wonderful fragrance that my wife asked me what smelled so good. "A bad plant", I told her. "Really?" she responded, "we need more of those." Multiflora rose provides essential cover for birds and other wildlife, and copious food for wildlife and people via its super-nutritious rose hips (an excellent natural source of vitamin C). It is unsurpassed at erosion control."
Confusion of unintentional consequence with natural processes: One of the hardest things for people to grasp is that, even though we aren't intentionally changing the earth's climate, it is in fact our collective fault. Similarly, in the paragraph below, a meadow is said to be controlled by "Darwin and Mother Nature". In reality, that field is tremendously influenced by human impacts. Periodic fire was once a natural part of the landscape, but now excluded. We removed all the predators of deer, so their numbers have exploded, and their preference for browsing on native species has given nonnative species, which we have introduced to the continent in numbers far greater than could ever be termed natural, a competitive advantage. Past farming obliterated the native seedbank that once would have favored native species. To compensate for all the historic human-caused transformations that continue to affect the meadow, what is needed now is intentional action--the very sort that McGrath would describe as "unnatural". 
"Ah, but Darwin and Mother Nature are in control that meadow. As Peter Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University explains in his excellent new book, "Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast", your unwanted plants are succeeding there naturally. (And perhaps because you are unnaturally mowing the meadow in the fall, which probably favors the 'bad' plants immensely.) It is possible to remove and replace such plants, notes Del Tredici, but not without tremendous environmental destruction and endless intensive care for the replacement plants. You can't just spray the "weeds" and have wanted plants suddenly thrive; the reworked area would have to tended like a garden. (But it would require much more work than a regular garden.)"

Confusion of intentional action with "dominating Nature": McGrath and other apologists for invasive plant species are essentially offering us excuses for inaction--a tremendously appealing option, given our hectic lives. But the people asking him for help are feeling besieged by invasive species, and want to act. He offers them instead a skewed, rigid ideology and dubious advice that leads to a sense of futility. Past human impacts are downplayed, excused, or repackaged as "natural", useful tools for intervention, such as herbicides, receive blanket condemnation, and any intentional action to undo past ecological trauma is attacked, e.g. in the paragraph below, as an attempt to "dominate Nature". 
"The plants that are there now are stabilizing the soil, managing storm water, protecting the creek and watershed, and providing food and shelter for wildlife. Before you remove those plants, take a careful, objective look at the plants you propose installing in their place. If they won't do a better job, you'd just be trying to dominate Nature, not manage it."
The accusation of emotional bias: One last thing to point out. The word "objective" in the quote above implies that people who are concerned about invasive species are somehow blinded by bias and emotion. Similar accusations have been made by others critiqued on this website. McGrath, at least, doesn't confuse nonnative (origin) with invasive (behavior), and though he makes reckless and unfounded accusations, as far as I know he hasn't flung the word "xenophobic" around. This detailed critique shows, however, that McGrath has lost whatever objectivity he may once have had to speak about ecological matters.
For more on glyphosate from the perspective of land managers, here's an informative post:http://wildones.org/download/roundupmyth/roundupmyth.html