Aminopyralid - a time bomb hidden in manure
Coming soon to a garden near you!
Three years ago we had the opportunity to take on a quarter acre of bramble infested, waterlogged, stony land with a couple of polytunnels on it. Coming as it did, right when we were going through our peak oil moment, timing couldn’t have been better. We’d been casting about for appropriate ways to respond to the challenges of an uncertain future and growing vegetables was something we knew we could do.
So we got stuck in; clearing, building raised beds, mulching, making compost, collecting manure, sowing, weeding. Every bit of our spare time and money went to “Einion’s Resilience Garden”. Fruit trees and bushes were our birthday and wedding presents, and at X-mas, it was tools and books. Obsessed? Not really, just an acute sense of urgency and the realisation that the patch we decided to cultivate had come with a few challenges of it’s own. First we discovered that it had rampant clubroot and we learned to deal with that. Then we had the soil tested for heavy metals and found that one part of the plot had much higher lead levels than we were happy to grow vegetables on. We started bio-remediation and grew flowers and fruit there instead.
Mostly the soil consisted of a shallow layer of boulder clay, lots of stones and not a lot of fertility. So we were really excited to find a nearby source of free horse manure. You’ve got to understand, to a gardener, that’s like winning the lottery! How were we to know that this would turn out to be a Trojan horse bringing the Big Bad to our Resilience Garden?
Aminopyralid is an extremely persistent hormone-based herbicide. It is used to destroy difficult weeds on fields for pasture. When used on grassland it binds itself to the lignin and cellulose of the plants and stays there. When a crop of hay is then taken of that land, it is in the hay. When horses or other animals eat that hay, the aminopyralid stays bound to the undigested plant material in their manure: a silent, invisible killer. Even in manure that’s 4-5 years old, it’s still active. When gardeners then use that manure to improve the fertility of their land the natural, organic way, it strikes, like an activated terrorist sleeper cell, setting out to destroy innocent plants. As the cellulose in the muck decomposes, aminopyralid is freed, seeking out the hungry, tender roots of juvenile plants in their first enthusiastic flush of growth, drunk on early sunshine and life itself. The first thing you notice is that everything stops growing. Then the vibrant spring green turns an unhealthy shade of yellow and the real horror starts. This chemical does not attack your plants from the outside, like most other threats to their survival do, but creeps up on them from the inside, using their drive to grow and live against them, distorting and twisting new growth in grotesque shapes until they look nothing like nature intended them to.
In 2008, when aminopyralid contamination was widespread, I listened to the tales of woe on Gardeners Question Time, read the allotment and gardening blogs and had a pretty good idea as to the symptoms of aminopyralid poisoning in vegetables. Like all gardeners, I felt for those whose gardens had fallen foul of this evil and gave a sigh of relief when it was removed from the market later that year.
So when John’s sunflowers started to show strange, deformed growth, I dismissed my initial suspicions and looked for soil or virus problems first. Aminopyralid was no longer on the market - right? Wrong! Two years after it was removed, it was re-licensed under the so-called “strict” regulations of a new stewardship scheme, as I later found out.
Now I wonder whether my first reaction was just a case of denial, as the truth was too terrible to accept. About ten days after first noticing the abnormal growth on the sunflowers, they looked like mutoid monsters; the Highland Black potatoes were showing the characteristic cupping of new leaves and fern-like growth, the Cosse Violette beans had the most fantastic prominent veining and truly gothic leaf shapes, Cape Gooseberries and aubergines were like alien creatures.
Little more than two weeks earlier, as I walked through my polytunnel on a sunny morning, it had felt as if the plants were singing. When Vivaldi’s Primavera, came blasting out of the radio, it couldn’t have been more fitting. The bees and hoverflies were buzzing about, the blackbirds popped in for a grub or two and the frogs were all having it on in the pond. So much life, so much vitality, you could but smile at the sheer exuberance of it all.
Now Chopin’s funeral march was a more appropriate soundtrack for what was happening to our Resilience Garden. John and I watched in quiet despair as each morning another crop would show the same symptoms. I could no longer deny it; this was aminopyralid poisoning.
Once we’d accepted that, we moved into a strange crazed state of frenetic remedial work, which is a bit of a blur now. It was like watching ourselves working in fast reverse, scraping the straw mulch off the raised beds, then digging out the top dressed manure and the top layer of our now also contaminated soil, removing surviving plants to be cleaned and replanted later. We bought in tons of community compost and used that to replace the topsoil and manure and replanted, resowed and re-mulched. Days later, we emerged a bit wild-eyed: we’d done what we could to remove the poison and it was now up to nature to work her magic.
By then I was also done with crying and felt a deep, cold anger over what had happened. Surely there would be some organisation, some government body that would help us get recompense. That’s when the second shock came; nobody was interested. Not the Soil Association or the RHS (we weren’t members), not the Environment Agency or Defra. The latter referred us to the Health and Safety Executive, who pointed us to their Chemical Regulation Directive, which is the department that hands out the license for aminopyralid-containing products. They were very reluctant to take action: their employee told me that “in cases like this” they could not enforce their own regulations. When I asked him in which cases they could enforce those regulations, I was met with silence. It wasn’t until two days after I had spoken to several people at the Welsh Assembly Government and complained about the defeatist attitude of the CRD that I received an email from them saying that they would now investigate our case.
I had also notified Dow Agrosciences, proud creators of aminopyralid (as well as DDT and Agent Orange), of the damage their product had inflicted on our livelihood and food. Their response was to provide us with a skip in which to deposit our contaminated manure and soil, as well as send us a consultant to give us “advice” and take samples and photos.
We are still at a loss as to the true reason for this visit. When I attempted to explain our no-dig, organic methods, based upon Permaculture ethics and principles and respect for all that lives, his response was that “this was of course anathema” to him, which kind of stunned us. This person was a classic proponent of the thinking that man is dominant over all of creation and for every problem there is a chemical solution. Dinosaurs do come to mind... Oh, and compensation - well, he wasn’t able to comment on that!
After almost three years of good, hard work, we’d hoped to make a little bit of a profit this year, but instead we are not only facing a big loss, we’ve also incurred extra costs, not to mention all the additional work, which has set us back a lot.
If my vegetables would ever cause anybody any damage at all, you can bet I’d have to make amends, but this big, super-rich corporation can just release poisons onto the market that have trashed our livelihood and our food, and gets away with it. Nobody is holding them to account. How can this be right?
Part of the problem is that the cases of contamination often go unreported. Gardeners do not recognize the symptoms and blame themselves, the weather or bugs for their failed harvests, and in some cases use the same contaminated manure for several years running, with devastating results. As long as the CRD gets only a handful of cases reported (as most people don’t bother or don’t even know that you can do this), they can say that cases of accidental poisoning are too few to necessitate any action from them regarding the regulations.
So have you spotted any strange, deformed leaves in your garden? Did you notice any curly fern-like growth on your neighbour’s spuds of tomatoes? Are your crops failing with the afore mentioned symptoms? Then let the CRD and Dow know:
Add your comments to George Monbiot’s blog :
For more pictures, check out John Mason’s blog:
For more info, the Green Lane Allotments website has collected by far the most exhaustive database on aminopyralid-contaminated manure:
George Monbiot has written on this subject recently, see: