Dearest Umbra, Goddess of Green Knowledge,

A few years ago, a farmer friend of mine argued that more pesticides and chemical fertilizers are applied to suburban lawns and gardens than are used in commercial agriculture. I can see how this might be the case, given the massive size of the lawn and garden chemical industry, but I haven’t been able to verify this information. Can you help?

Ed Hunt

Dearest Ed, Supplicant,

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The lawn and garden industry is massive, indeed. In 1997, U.S. households used 76 million pounds of pesticides. Of course, some of these toxic chemicals may have been for fleas or cockroaches, not for lawn pests. Still, 76 million is a very large number — that is, until you stick it next to 944 million, which is the number of pounds of pesticides used on U.S. farms. Then it looks kinda small.

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To make a lawn story short.

But we can look at it another way: Three-quarters of U.S. households are using pesticides. Just over half of our country’s farms are using them. We non-farmers should be ashamed of ourselves. Pesticides (this includes herbicides) can be nerve toxins and hormone disrupters, and they persist in our waterways for longer than you care to think about. They are especially dangerous to children and Chihuahuas, kill small but important bugs, harm fish, and sicken the people manufacturing and applying them. To top it off, they are difficult to dispose of — and unnecessary for use on suburban lawns.

Farmers can make some excellent arguments for the use of pesticides, and our agriculture system has a long way to go in order to become less toxic for the farmers as well as the consumers. But the agricultural system is slowly transforming (most of the new active ingredients registered for use with the government in 1997 were less toxic than those used in earlier years), and in the meantime, you can buy organic and keep the long view.

Non-farmers, who are not valiantly fighting to keep the source of their livelihoods from going under, have absolutely no excuse for using toxic chemicals on their lawns and gardens. Tell everyone you know to read the U.S. EPA report from whence the numbers in this answer came. Maybe then they’ll stop saying, “Ooo, them dumb farmers, it’s all those stupid hicks poisoning our pristine aquifers.” Further, tell them to run home, throw all the slug bait, roach killer, Roundup, and 2, 4-D into a bag, and head to the hazardous waste disposal site to expiate their guilt.

I hope this is helpful, Ed.