Colleges Have Every Reason to Ditch Toxic Pesticides

New report reveals transitioning to organic land care practices can save schools money and water while fostering biodiversity.

The pinnacle of college life in America is the green, grassy quad. Often the center of campus physically and metaphorically, these pristine lawns are where students congregate, graduate, and celebrate. But not all quads, or campuses for that matter, are cared for equally.

The majority of colleges employ conventional land care practices, relying heavily on synthetic pesticides to maintain campus aesthetics and keep the campus and sports fields free of weeds. Photo courtesy of Herbicide-Free Campus.

If you are one of the approximately 20 million students enrolled in an institution of higher education in the US, odds are you are being exposed to toxic, carcinogenic pesticides as a result of your campus’ land care policies and practices. The majority of colleges employ conventional land care practices, relying heavily on synthetic pesticides to maintain campus aesthetics and keep the campus and sports fields free of weeds. Potential health implications of pesticides range from cancer to hormone disruption to inducing neurotoxicity. This should horrify campus communities, including students, prospective students, staff, faculty, and parents.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. New research from Herbicide-Free Campus reveals that ditching synthetic pesticides and transitioning to organic land care practices can save water and money, while eliminating cancer risks, fostering biodiversity and mitigating climate change. Based on interviews Herbicide-Free Campus conducted with land care and sustainability professionals at eight different institutions of higher education, The State of Ecological Campus Land Management Across the US, details some of the costs, benefits, and best practices employed in transitioning to organic land care.

Water Savings

Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, operates with a campus that has been 90 percent organic since 2010. They have seen irrigation savings of 30 percent as a result of the transition away from synthetic pesticides. The transition has resulted in 2 million gallons of water saved every year, or 24 million gallons saved since the transition. Between 2006 and 2013, Cascadia College/UW Bothell in Washington State, reduced water use by 26 percent. The Grounds Supervisor attributes this reduction to new mulching practices, the development of the soil food web, and increased soil structure resulting from pesticide reduction.

Cost Savings

Harvard began composting landscape waste on site instead of paying for its removal. This eliminated the annual US$35,000 cost associated with the landscape waste removal and has saved Harvard an additional US$10,000 per year in fertilizer costs. At Cascadia College/UW Bothell, considering both the time and the amount of inputs purchased, they are spending 1/10th the amount on their organic lawns as they once did on conventional lawns. Willamette University, in Salem, Oregon, is also saving money; they estimate savings of approximately US$2,000 a year attributed to managing their landscape organically.

Soil Health

Many schools who participated in the research also saw an improvement in soil health. Healthy soil is important because it increases biodiversity, improves the landscapes’ ability to weather water flux, and potentially improves the soil’s ability to sequester carbon, which helps to mitigate the climate crisis. At UC Berkeley, in Northern California, the grounds team saw that after the organic transition, there was a 22 times increase in microorganisms in the soil at one of the largest green spaces on campus test plots, indicating an increase in soil biodiversity and overall soil health. At CU Boulder, in Colorado, soil testing post-transition showed that soil health improved, with one recent soil test showing the highest level of organic material (a key indicator of soil health) ever measured by the testing facility.

Additional data from a survey conducted by Herbicide-Free Campus of grounds managers and sustainability directors at 30-plus institutions of higher education show that there is widespread concern about the environmental impacts of and personal exposure to pesticides. Over 75 percent of respondents indicated interest in reducing synthetic pesticide use and implementing organic land care methods, and in general, respondents reported that key barriers include lack of education as well as the belief that organic land care is more costly, more time intensive, and more labor intensive.

With so many benefits and potential cost savings, why have more schools not joined in on the organic land care revolution? It is clear that organic land care can save money and water, improve soil health and biodiversity, and potentially help to fight against climate change through increasing soil carbon sequestration. Research shows that grounds managers and sustainability directors are concerned about synthetic pesticide use. It is time that colleges and universities step up and listen to concerned stakeholders, read the science, and collaborate to protect community health and combat the intersecting climate and biodiversity crises through a rapid transition to organic land care.

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