2022 marks sixty years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and so, sixty years since the birth of the modern environmental movement in the Global North. Many of the alarm bells Carson sounded still ring true today – insect extinction; the devasting effects of pesticides on non-target species; and the agrochem industry pouring money onto government scales to tip regulation in favour of their profit margins.

But there may be promise in some new budding change? This 60th anniversary appears to be coinciding with a growing, and long overdue, reorientation of our relationship to unwanted plants and ‘pests’.

Friend or foe?

A new study from the University of Sussex found four times as many pollinator species (including bees, butterflies, moths and beetles) visited ‘injurious weeds’, than visited the ‘pollinator plant’ options recommended by government.

Five species of native UK wildflowers are classified ‘injurious’, including ragwort, creeping thistle and spear thistle. An ‘injurious weed’ is any plant that has been officially classified as causing damage or harm to crops, habitats or ecosystems, and humans or livestock.

Dr Nicholas Balfour, University of Sussex, said: “Pollinators are crucial to maintaining global biodiversity, ecosystem resilience and agricultural output. However, there are significant concerns about pollinator declines and the long-term decline of flowers in our landscapes is considered a key factor. We appreciate that agricultural weeds can cause yield losses in arable and pastureland. However, we’ve shown that they can also be of great value to both flower-visiting and herbivorous insects – and shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to supporting our natural biodiversity.”

Given pollinators and insects observed preference to these ‘injurious’ plants, maybe we are being invited to reconsider our stance?

More Than Weeds

The growing Pesticide-Free Towns campaign also invites us to shift our relationship to plants considered ‘weeds’. Instead of spraying toxic pesticides, councils are encouraged to use alternatives where necessary, but also let plants grow where they can. This echoes other efforts, like “More Than Weeds”, to change our perception of ‘pavement plants’. Plants in our towns and cities are often unloved and seen as undesirable, but they play a vital ecological role, essential to rebugging the planet and averting the insect apocalypse.

Indigenous wisdom has long held plants, animals and insects as “non-human kin”, each with a role and a place.

Language is powerful, and words matter.

Slugs and snails…

Which takes us to the announcement by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) last month that they will no longer classify slugs and snails as pests. Instead, the RHS is shifting their advice to using pesticides only as a very last resort, and acknowledging the valuable role played by slugs and snails in our ecosystems.

Dr. Andrew Salisbury, Principal Scientist at the RHS said: “Even the plant-nibbling [slug and snail] species can play a vital role in recycling dead plant material and animal waste, and acting as a food source for hedgehogs, frogs, birds, beetles and predatory flies. Our gardens would be a duller and messier place without them.”

The framing of the pesticides debate is so often pitted as “against”, “against”, “against”. Advocates for pesticide reduction are viewed as unreasonably against pesticides, or somehow against farmers, or against “progress”. But, truly the movement to transition from pesticide use is “for”, “for”, “for”. For healthy rivers, for an abundance of plants, birds, slugs and snails. For a farming system that works with nature, and not against it. It’s time to end the ‘war on weeds’. We have the collective capacity and creativity to cohabit where we can, and manage unwanted plants and ‘pests’ more gently where necessary.

Springtime is associated with new life, new beginnings, and renewal. Sixty years since Silent Spring was first published, we will continue nurturing these seeds of change, hopeful for what could grow.

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” ― Rachel Carson

Photo credit: Allan Burrows