On a sunny warm May afternoon, Andrew Smith drives around the tree lined, well-tended neighborhoods of Sonoma, on the lookout for a lethal ritual. In a green vest, white Sonoma County Department of Agriculture truck and sunglasses, he’s looking for workers spraying pesticides to kill plants, insects and animals. He stops to make pesticide safety inspections. And when he meets maintenance gardeners using pesticides without a license, he tells them they have to stop until they have one.
Unlicensed pesticide use is a big and growing problem. And Smith, a senior agricultural biologist, acknowledges, his is not a particularly popular job.
Armed with colorful booklets, Smith introduces the license, and licensing process, in English or Spanish, as necessary. Sometimes he writes a notice of violation, which can carry a financial penalty. Sometimes, they listen. Sometimes, they turn their back and walk away.
Apart from the maintenance gardeners he approaches, few people even know he’s out there doing it.
But Smith, who grew up in Sonoma County, takes the responsibility seriously. Like his co-workers at the Department of Agriculture, and their counterparts in counties across the state, he’s on the front line to enforce the state rules that protect people and other life in the environment from being poisoned.
Pesticide regulation is a relatively new occupation. The native peoples living in Sonoma County, and the settlers who displaced them, once tolerated a host of pests on a daily basis: disease-carrying mosquitoes and insects that attacked crops; mice and rats who ate the food humans harvested; legions of wild plants, microbes and molds that sickened livestock, ruined food and made gardens and farms less productive.
It wasn’t until World War II that scientists began developing synthetic compounds that could be used to help fight them off and tip the balance heavily in favor of humans.
Today, even novice gardeners can arm themselves with an entire arsenal of chemicals designed to hold natural destroyers at bay.
More than 900 active ingredients, collectively known as pesticides, are now registered in the California Department of Pesticide Regulation database. Those active compounds are sold in thousands of products, and in growing amounts, every year. According to state records, 350 registered pesticides are now being commonly used on the foods we eat, around the home and on our pets.
Ruling on Roundup
The reason California keeps track of their use — and was the first state in the U.S. to even attempt to do so — is because pesticides are a very unique type of product. They’re specifically created to disrupt the biological processes of living things, usually with lethal results.
And that means, using them carries some risks.
The pesticide most commonly used by maintenance gardeners in Sonoma County, Smith says, are herbicides that contain the chemical glyphosate. Herbicides are used to kill weeds. Glyphosate is the main active ingredient in Monsanto Roundup and 700 other products. The compound is incredibly effective. It works by shutting down a mechanism that certain plants, bacteria and other microbes use to make the proteins they need to grow. Without them, they die.
In the past 30 years, glyphosate has been increasingly sprayed, dusted, scattered or coated for agriculture, public and residential uses, and is now the single largest pesticide used, by volume, in the world. It’s popular because it gives farmers and ranchers higher yields, clears weeds and invasive species and reduces manual labor. For some growers, it can be the difference between breaking even and going under.