Grinnell President Anne Harris and the groundskeeping team quickly got onboard, and this spring the school hired a botanist consultant to help plan the first site, a 5,000-square-foot area in the middle of campus. But students soon faced a dilemma: In order to transform the plot during the 2020-2021 schoolyear, it would need to be planted with native grass seeds in mid-May. That left just over a month to plan and prepare. Given the short timeline, the botanist and groundskeeper agreed a one-time application of glyphosate was necessary to clear the land of nonnative grasses.
Their reasoning was simple: Glyphosate is effective and efficient. But that efficacy does not come without risks. The herbicide is classified as a probable by the World Health Organization. From an environmental perspective, glyphosate decimates soil microbes, harms wildlife, and can run off to impact waterways and oceans.
Despite widespread concerns about glyphosate, it is ubiquitous in habitat restoration due to its ability to fully eradicate nonnative plants. For example, in 2019, the University of California temporarily banned the use of glyphosate-based herbicides on all nine campuses due to concerns raised by HFC about the use of toxic chemicals. But the ban included an exemption for habitat restoration.
HFC Grinnell students did not want to perpetuate glyphosate’s use in restoration work. After all, the goal of Herbicide-Free Campus is to reduce toxic herbicide use on campus. So, the fellows compiled research and suggested an alternative, nontoxic weed killer that has been shown to be nearly as effective as glyphosate. They were told that this product was too new and not enough was known about its efficacy. Using it could put the prairie restoration project at risk.
Learn more about this Earth Island project at: herbicidefreecampus.org
The students regrouped again, and after reevaluating their priorities, they came to a consensus: The organic nature of the project was of the utmost importance. As Tommy Hexter, a member of HFC Grinnell, put it: “The Western logic of domination and its Green Revolution have made it frighteningly easy to rapidly destroy, transform, and control the environment. In my opinion, it would be egregious for this planting to begin from this logic … Achieving a true ethic of sustainable land management will require sacrifice, patience, and ingenuity. It will require a slower and more composed intervention.”