Last Friday in the sweltering heat, Stoneybatter resident Kaethe Burt-O’Dea managed to look cool and comfortable as she showed me around the local community garden.
On Sitric Road, the petite, strangely shaped, oblong garden at the edge of the houses gives off a pleasant fragrance that is hard to place.
The fenced garden is full of tarragon, chives, pear trees, apple trees, poppies and feverfew. There’s even a three-year-old nectarine tree – a rare success in Irish soil – which is the miracle child of this garden, having sprouted from a compost heap.
The community has even developed its own variety of blight-resistant potato, specimens which grow at the very centre of the garden, behind a sign saying: “Will this local cultivar be capable of pushing the Rooster off its pedestal?”
Burt-O’Dea has launched a number of projects over the years, including SPUDS, in opposition to the decision to trial genetically modified blight-resistant potatoes, and Lifeline, to strengthen Dublin’s bee population.
Now she is on a campaign to stop Dublin City Council from using a weedkiller she believes – based on World Health Organisation research – is carcinogenic. She says she’d rather see people let their weeds grow and learn to appreciate them, or spend time outside, pulling up weeds the old-fashioned way and meeting each other.
As she throws a stick for her hyper dog Django – who is unchained and running circles around us – she explains that the community garden started up more than 10 years ago as a place for the street’s residents to compost their organic waste. Sure enough there are compost bins dotted between the plants and camouflaged by the greenery.
The plants also spill out on to the street, pushing through the concrete to thrive in the gutters and the cracks. These are the subject of Burt-O’Dea’s latest aspiration: a herbicide-free city.
Earlier in the month, independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan put a message through the letterboxes of Stoneybatter residents confirming that Dublin City Council would be removing weeds in the area after some concerned constituents contacted her.
At this point Burt-O’Dea became worried about the herbs, which almost spill onto street, and about the bees that they attract, which she likes.
After contacting Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe, she became worried about the health of residents when she discovered that Dublin City Council sprays Roundup Biactive weedkiller; according to a recent report by the World Health Organization, weedkillers like Roundup Biactive are probably bad for us.
Cuffe was unavailable for comment as he was on his honeymoon. (We’ll let him get away with it this time.)
The active ingredient in Roundup Biactive, glyphosate, is “probably carcinogenic to humans” according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization. It uses that category when there is “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals”.
According to the report, humans can be exposed to glyphosate – which was used as industrial pipe cleaner until it was re-marketed as a herbicide in the 1970s – through its presence in the air during spraying, in water and in food. “The general population is exposed primarily through residence near sprayed areas, home use, and diet,” it stated.
Research conducted in 2013 by Friends of the Earth found that humans are easily exposed to glyphosate. It tested the urine samples of 182 city dwellers from 18 European countries (not including Ireland, unfortunately) and found traces of glyphosate in 44 percent of cases.
A number of countries have moved to restrict the use of Roundup. France announced a ban on over-the-counter sales of the product this month as a result of the report published by IARC in March.
The Netherlands, Russia and Mexico have likewise put restrictions on the use of glyphosate-based herbicides due to health concerns. The Brazilian government is currently considering the option.
In Ireland, people seem less concerned with this news. The only mention of the issue in politics was when Dublin North TD Clare Daly asked in the Dáil if the use of glyphosate would be prohibited. The answer to which is that the EU is currently conducting a “re-review” of the chemical.
As the council workers rode through Stoneybatter on their quad bikes spraying every weed in sight, Burt-O’Dea requested that they avoid the community garden, resulting in a glyphosate-free zone which consists of Sitric Road and Viking Road in Dublin 7.
However, Monsanto, the American multinational that makes Roundup – whose representatives are famous for drinking the weedkiller to show how safe it is – denies the claims that it is carcinogenic to humans and criticises IARC’s report.
And the Department of Agriculture, faced with the recent report, said Roundup is just one of 500 herbicides it approves of, and that an EU review of glyphosate is underway. The report’s conclusions were reached after “a review of a very limited number of largely publicly accessible literature studies”, said a spokesperson.
“Such data represents a small part of the overall data set available on glyphosate,” she added. “It should be noted that a review by another UN office, the JMPR (Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues) did not concur with the IARC conclusions.”
Not Just Health, But Community
To the doubts about Roundup’s evilness, Burt-O’Dea responds, “Why not err on the side of safety and encourage people to do things that get them together as a neighbourhood?”
It would be better for people to pull up the weeds outside their houses themselves, because plants can adapt to resist Roundup, she says. And when they are sprayed and die, weeds rot on the ground and become soil that can host more weeds.
Pulling up the weeds by hand “is a much more permanent solution if you are worried about the untidiness,” she says.
Besides, simple activities like weed pulling can have knock-on effects that are good for us. Spending time outside our houses, in our neighbourhoods, pulling weeds, would make us more likely to socialise with each other.
Burt-O’Dea, who works from home, uses the community garden as an example. “Every time I come out here, I meet somebody new and have a conversation, so as a result I know hundreds of people in the neighbourhood,” she says.
For the Bees
Though Burt-O’Dea has no problem with weed-pulling, the plants on Sitric Road have been left to bloom. Some of them look like wild grasses, while other have pretty flowers that add colour to the street.
“The term ‘weed’ is really just an expression; it’s just a flower in the wrong place,” Burt-O’Dea says.
Some “weeds” are essential to the survival of Dublin’s bees, Burt-O’Dea says. Dandelions, for example, aren’t the most attractive of flowers, but they are the first to bloom in the spring, so bees rely on them.
The same goes for ivy, “which you probably didn’t even know blooms”, and which serves bees in the autumn.
Burt-O’Dea spent years trying to remove the geraniums from the community garden, and now they have been exiled to the gutter where they blossom beside the parked cars; they are abuzz with bees.
She pauses to observe one of the insects. She cannot figure out what type of bee it is and bends down to snap a photo. Later, she tells me it was just a honey bee, but she didn’t recognise it as it was covered from head to toe in pollen. I picture having a bath in a tub of chocolate; the bees must love it there.
Burt-O’Dea is using these two streets as a case study to argue against using herbicide throughout the city. It takes three weeks for Roundup to work and the plants’ corpses are left to disintegrate afterwards. She has been documenting the results.
Are weeds even a problem that needs to be solved, chemically or manually? Or are these flowers in the wrong place best left to thrive and host bees and other critters?
Public opinion in Burt-O’Dea’s neighbourhood was varied. I spoke to around a dozen people about the weeds sprouting in the area.
Two women used the term “disgrace” repeatedly (at least eight times) and said they believe the council needs to remove the weeds. A young couple sitting on the ground to catch some of the sun’s heat said they really liked the plants growing in the gutters.
One man said he didn’t mind them, but pulled the weeds outside his own door, while another never even noticed the weeds in the neighbourhood. “I suppose they add a bit of green to the street,” he said.
Passing by with her newborn, a woman said the key was balance. “I quite like them, particularly the ones with the flowers,” she said, “but I don’t like them when they get too mad and out of control.”