News story about persistent herbicides damaging crops in UK

This post is about Caroline Davies’ article “Home-grown veg ruined by toxic fertiliser“, published in The Observer by on June 29, 2008 [1]. I stumbled across the article after stumbling across posts about it on a couple of other blogs [2][3] (further information at end of this post).

To briefly summarize the article in (all quotes below are from the article):

  1. Dow AgriSciences makes a number of herbicides, some of which use aminopyralids. One of the formulations goes by the brand name Forefront in the U.K. “Aminopyralid is popular with farmers, who spray it on grassland because it controls weeds such as docks, thistles and nettles without affecting the grass around them. It binds itself to the woody tissue in the grass and only breaks down when exposed to bacteria in the soil.”
  2. “Aminopyralid, which is found in several Dow products, the most popular being Forefront, a herbicide, is not licensed to be used on food crops and carries a label warning farmers using it not to sell manure that might contain residue to gardeners.”
  3. Despite the existing label warning, and also despite Dow’s “campaign within the agriculture industry to ensure that farmers were aware of how the products should be used”, some of the herbicides have gotten into the food chain. “It appears that the contamination came from grass treated 12 months ago. Experts say the grass was probably made into silage, then fed to cattle during the winter months. The herbicide remained present in the silage, passed through the animal and into manure that was later sold. Horses fed on hay that had been treated could also be a channel.”
  4. Gardens that have been treated with the contaminated compost have seen pretty severe effects on many plants.
  5. It is unknown at this time how dangerous it is to consume vegetables that were treated with contaminated compost. Although most government agencies have said that the exposure to humans is probalby minimal, Dow is still recommending that possibly exposed food not be eaten. They suggest that ground treated with contaminated compost should be safe to plant in again after one year.
  6. There is already talk of numerous lawsuits, bans, etc. In general, it is going to be difficult to establish who was the guilty party in lawsuits, as most compost providers bought silage from multiple sources, and some of those sources may have in turn bought from even more sources and intermixed everything before selling it.

One of the things NOT pointed out in the article is what repercussions (if any) there will be for farmers who sold contaminated silage without telling their customers, and/or farmers and livestock owners who bought the silage without asking if it was safe for manure production. Even if the herbicides in question are eventually banned, we are still left with the issue the products carry labels for A REASON. It’s not possible to make the world completely foolproof, nor is it possible to produce chemicals or goods that are impossible to misuse. There does come a point where users, especially COMMERCIAL users, have to be expected to read the freaking labels and instructions for the products they use.

Also from Davies’ article:

How to deal with the problem
Do you have contaminated manure?
Tell-tale symptoms of crop damage include distorted foliage, with cupping of leaves and fern-like growth. There are no remedies once damage has occurred. Susceptible crops include potatoes, tomatoes, beans, peas, carrots and lettuce.

How should you deal with the affected area?
Experts say rotavation is the best practice, or forking over several times as soon as possible. This incorporates the plant tissue into the soil, where it will decompose and the chemicals will eventually be degraded by soil microbes. Repeat the rotavation in late summer/early autumn.

Should you replant this season?
No. The plant residues need to be given time to break down. The advice is not to replant for a year.

Why has the chemical lasted so long?
Aminopyralid, like other herbicides, works by binding strongly to plant tissues. Once the plant’s tissues decay, the chemical breaks down in the soil. If manure is stacked it takes far longer.

Regarding the blogs whereby I found this article — I found this article after seeing posts on it at LeisureGuy’s Later On blog and Kirk James Murphy’s post on Firedoglake. While Davies’ news article for is quite interesting and does a good job of presenting multiple sides of the story (in my opinion), Murphy’s post on Firedoglake is mainly an editorial about the evils of corporations and the chemicals produced by corporations. The damage from persistent herbicides as described in Davies’ article was used as an example of this evil, along with biosolids gproduced from treated sewage which are not safe for use as fertilizer although labeled as such, and the prevalence of hormone-mimicking compounds in the food chain. For Firedoglake, Murphy very briefly and very selectively quoted Davies’ article such that the warning labels on the herbicide were not mentioned, nor was Dow’s attempts to educate farmers about not using the herbicide on food crops or silage that might go into the food chain. In turn, Later On by LeisureGuy only quoted parts of Murphy’s Firedoglake post.

In all fairness, Murphy did check to see if aminopyralid herbicides are used in the U.S. He said yes, they are, Cleanwave is registered for use on wheat, Milestone is registered for use on pastures, and Forefront is registered for use on pastures and rangeland.

Yet, this also brings up the question — if the problem is the inherent evil of aminopyralid herbicides being anywhere near the food chain, why are we not seeing this problem in the U.S.? (Although true believers will say this is only a further sign of the insidious influence of chemical companies in the U.S. and their control of the media and government.)

Reading through the comments on Murphy’s Firedoglake post, there was a commenter who said properly composted material should reach an internal temperature high enough to decompose most agricultural chemicals. I thought this comment was very interesting.


  1. Primary – Davies, Caroline; “Home-grown veg ruined by toxic fertiliser”, The Observer,; article dated June 29, 2008; article accessed by internet July 1, 2008;; copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
  2. Secondary – blog Later On, author LeisureGuy. Post titled “Persistent herbicide destroying crops in UK”, dated June 29, 2008; article accessed by internet July 1, 2008.
  3. Secondary – blog Firedoglake, author Kirk James Murphy M.D. Post titled “Persistent Herbicide in Compost Destroys U.K. gardens – Can It Happen Here?”, dated June 29, 2008; article accessed by internet July 1, 2008.

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