Naturally. Holistic. Environmentally friendly. What do these terms mean when it comes to landscaping and lawn maintenance?

Those who want to reduce their use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are faced with increasing greenwashing. In 2012, Scott Miracle-Gro paid criminal and civil penalties for violating the Pesticides Act, including putting misleading labels on pesticides. In 2020, the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides sued TruGreen over its claims of “providing environmentally friendly, sustainable lawn care services that do not use chemicals that can cause cancer, allergic reactions, or other health or environmental damage” – statements that Beyond Pesticides claims are false and deceptive. TruGreen uses glyphosate, which has been classified as likely carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, as well as a herbicide that warns of “irreversible eye damage” and “allergic reactions,” and a neurotoxic insecticide, according to Beyond Pesticides. Last July, the California Pesticides Agency issued a warning that products marketed by EcoMIGHT as organic and natural contained potentially hazardous pesticides.

“It can get pretty confusing because there really isn’t any organic landscaping certification,” Ryan Anderson, Community Integrated Pest Management Manager for Midwest Grows Green, a program run by the nonprofit IPM Institute of North America, told EHN. “Organic” claims are only regulated by the federal government in relation to food – therefore “organic” claims are not regulated for other products.

Related: Bayer will replace glyphosate in US turf products by 2023

This is problematic as there are thousands of pesticides out there and some that are routinely applied to lawns are linked to serious health problems. For example, while glyphosate – the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, has got the most attention in the news over lawsuits claiming it caused cancer – 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, or 2,4-D for short, has the Most attention has flown under the radar, despite being one of the most common herbicides used on lawns. The Federal Agency for Toxins and Disease Registries says 2,4-D is “toxic to both animals and humans” and that liver problems and nerve damage can result from long-term exposure. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers 2,4-D a possible human carcinogen. There are also concerns about its possible endocrine disrupting effects.

Popular “weed and feed” products in hardware stores can contain toxic pesticides including 2,4-D as well as chemical fertilizers that can contaminate water supplies. While manufacturers don’t claim the products are natural, the use of terms such as “green lawn” could suggest that their ingredients are harmless. However, there are resources available to help make informed decisions, but consumers need to know where to look and what questions to ask.

“We’re so ingrained looking for a label when buying food,” said Janet Hurley, Integrated Pest Control Expansion Program specialist at Texas A&M University, to EHN. “It’s an inconvenience that we don’t do the same thing with pesticides.”

Organic vs. natural

Photo credit: Kyle Richard / Flickr

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides guidance on environmental marketing claims through its Green Guides. The latest version was released in 2012. The Green Guides warn that it is misleading for a marketer to “misrepresent, directly or implicitly, that a product, packaging or service has an overall environmental benefit”.

While providing general guidance on environmental claims, the Agency does not address the use of some specific terms, including “ecological”, “natural” and “sustainable”. There is more general agreement among landscape and chemical policy experts about types of lawn care practices, as opposed to products, there is still a lack of clarity about what is safe.

Both organic lawn care and natural lawn care prioritize “cultural controls” such as airing and mowing up, which help strengthen the grass and strengthen its innate ability to repel weeds and pests. Most experts in organic lawn care look like the products used are not synthetic. For example, corn gluten meal, which is used for weed control, would be considered an organic option. Others define organic lawn care as using primarily or exclusively products certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute, which independently reviews products intended for use in organic food production.

“The organic side of lawn management is likely the biggest growth sector,” Chip Osborne, president of Osborne Organics, LLC and founder of the Organic Landscape Association, told EHN. “There are people who want to make money.”

“Natural” lawn care is often understood to be largely pesticide free, but allows minimal use of some pesticides with low risk. Integrated Pest Control System is a pest control system that is well established indoors and whose focus on controlling the root causes of pests has successfully replaced the regular indoor spraying of pesticides. However, the application in the outdoor area is not understood as uniformly, so the term is used loosely.

So what are the valid requirements for lawn care?

Organic and natural lawn care providers use a soil test to identify nutrient deficiencies and then focus on them. “A company that makes a decision based on the soil test is an excellent sign,” said Anderson.

Osborne also emphasized the importance of a lawn maintenance man who focuses on cultural controls. “The hard thing for consumers is that they call a landscaper and say that only chemicals will work or that they can use organic products,” he says. “But organic lawn management is not a product swap.”

For example, a conventional landscaper who makes a change by spraying a field with a less toxic herbicide but not focusing on cultural controls is not responding to the consumer’s request for environmentally friendly lawn care.

Do your research

Pesticide weed

Photo credit: claire.vath / Flickr

A consumer can ask companies for the label and safety data sheet for any product they propose to use. Labels are developed by the manufacturer and tested by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Safety data sheets are the responsibility of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Agency. “If they don’t give it to you, that should be a warning sign,” Hurley said. These documents are usually also available online.

For safety data sheets, Hurley recommends focusing on the following:

  • Section 1 identifies the chemical;
  • Section 2 identifies hazards and contains the “signal word” indicating the toxicity level of the product. A good rule of thumb is to avoid those with the signal words “Danger” or “Warning”, which indicate higher toxicity. However, the signal word has limitations, including the fact that it only takes into account acute toxicity and not long-term toxicity (such as cancer risk). The chemicals listed can also be matched against online resources. The California Proposition 65 List identifies chemicals, including pesticides, that cause cancer or reproductive harm.
  • Section 3 lists the ingredients of the product;
  • Section 11 contains toxicological information.

What if the pesticide applicator says the product is registered (or approved) by the EPA? This information isn’t all that useful as the pesticide registration process is riddled with loopholes. The main federal act on pesticides, the Federal Insecticides, Fungicides, and Rodenticides Act (FIFRA), was passed in 1947 when chemicals were repurposed for post-war economics and the suburbs began to develop – along with the new conception of smooth, solid color lawn.

According to FIFRA, the EPA does not need to analyze “inert” ingredients, which often make up a large part of the product and can be toxic. The EPA is required to conduct a cost-benefit analysis, which in practice often considers or presumes the economic benefits of a pesticide while ignoring many of the costs of its use. The agency does not need to determine whether an alternative, safer product could serve the same purpose as the product proposed for registration. In addition, the industry has a tremendous influence on decision-making when it comes to regulating pesticides. The result of these and other challenges is that pesticides that raise serious health concerns continue to be approved for use.

Let your lawn go wild

Some universities, organizations, and government agencies are trying to help consumers understand the many lawn care options.

  • Montgomery County, Maryland’s Consumer Protection Agency, offers tips for consumers seeking organic lawn care, including questions to potential landscapers.
  • The California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the National Pesticide Information Center – which is also a good source of health information about certain pesticides – have websites that help consumers understand pesticide labels.
  • Case studies of non-pesticide lawn maintenance are published by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
  • The EPA publishes a list of reduced risk pesticides.
  • Some nonprofits, such as Midwest Grows Green and the Northeast Organic Farming Association, provide lists or search tools to help identify lawn care providers who have organic practices.

An even better option to avoid greenwashing your lawn care? Put an end to the dream of a perfect, weed-free lawn. There is a growing recognition of the environmental and health harms it takes to conserve grass lawns. Grass is often not native to its location and requires the use of fertilizers and weed killers, irrigation and mowing, all of which can pollute the air, water and land and are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

More and more Americans are letting nature take its course, switching to native plants, meadow grasses, ivy and butterfly gardens that support human and pollinator health and reduce or eliminate the need for toxic product inputs and maintenance.

“The expectation of 100 percent grass monoculture was created by the industry in the 1950s when the concept of ‘better living through chemistry’ took off,” Osborne said. “It’s abnormal.”

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