Banning UC Berkeley’s use of herbicides from courts to campus is a must

A few weeks ago, right before my teammates and I were about to step on the sand courts to start morning practice, our coach told us to make sure we put footwear on if we step outside the courts because the groundskeepers had just sprayed an herbicide everywhere. Everyone absentmindedly nodded, and we began practice like it was just another day. Nobody seemed bothered by this announcement at all, except for me and one other concerned teammate. I could not get it out of my head that an herbicide was applied a few minutes before we arrived and we were surrounded by it. What herbicide was sprayed? What unknown effects could this have on my body?  In class I learn all about toxic herbicides such as glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s popular weed-killer Roundup and many other commercial weed-killers. Just a few weeks ago, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, or OEHHA, determined that glyphosate would be added to the list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer as part of Proposition 65. Additionally, glyphosate has also been identified as a contributor, even at low doses, to autism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, ADHD and many other illnesses. I had to find out what was sprayed and make sure it would never happen again.

My teammate and I contacted the athletic grounds manager to ask what herbicide was applied and how often, and he told us that he sprays the Monsanto product Ranger once a year all around our courts. Ranger contains 41 percent glyphosate, the same amount that is in Roundup. In light of OEHHA’s finding, spraying right next to a facility that hosts a group of women in reproductive age, heavily exercising and with a lot of skin exposed to the herbicide is close to criminal. In reaching out to UC groundskeeping staff, I found out that spraying within 50 to 100 feet of water sources is not allowed and the campus could be fined for doing so. At least one of the courts (and likely both of them) are within 100 feet of a water source, as there is a natural water source in the trees to the east of the court and another by the parking lot.

Not only are people unaware of the toxicity of this chemical they are being exposed to, but with the excess of rain we have been having, they are also unaware of the location and concentration of the chemical on and around the courts. The grounds manager agreed to stop spraying near our courts, as long as my teammate and I do the research to figure out how to manage the weeds without herbicides and spearhead the project.

This issue is not unique to Clark Kerr Campus’s sand courts. Now that my teammate and I have successfully banned herbicides from the courts and are underway with an alternative solution to manage the landscape, we are going to move on to the other athletic facilities. We will then take on central campus, as Roundup is frequently applied to the grounds of the entire campus. When I asked both Gary Imazumi, the senior grounds manager at UC Berkeley, and Sal Genito, the associate director of Grounds, Custodial and Environmental Services, what the biggest barrier would be in removing glyphosate from campus, they both said finances. Over time, the eventual discontinuation of staff to remove the weeds on campus led the administration to turn to toxic herbicides. The weeds could be left to grow, but it would change the aesthetics. Imazumi said it would “depend on people’s tolerance to change.” Leaving the weeds could also result in many problems, as weeds can be invasive and compete with other plants for nutrients and sunlight. Weeds can also be a potential fire hazard. Eliminating herbicides would require either hiring landscape staff to manually remove all of the weeds, relandscaping to include more weed-resistant vegetation or altering the aesthetics of UC Berkeley to include more beneficial weeds and eliminating just the problematic ones.

The latter solution could include the foraging of weeds, as proposed by Berkeley Open Source Food. The faculty in this group includes integrative biology professor Thomas Carlson, statistics professor Philip Stark and nutritional sciences and toxicology professor Kristen Rasmussen. Through their research, the group found that many campus “weeds” are in fact wild, edible species that could help reduce water usage, save money, reduce exposure to toxic chemicals and environmental contamination and simultaneously improve nutrition and food security. Just last week, my teammate Bridget and I met with professors Carlson, Stark, and Rasmussen to design a plan to make an herbicide and pesticide-free campus a reality.   

For me, this seemingly small battle represents a larger issue at hand, one of the most consequential environmental issues of our time. Conventional agriculture uses an abundance of pesticides and herbicides, which are depleting the earth’s natural resources and immensely harming human health. My home state of Hawaii, where less than two centuries ago, native Hawaiians fed their communities using some of the most historically sustainable agricultural practices ever documented, has recently become “ground zero” for industrial agriculture and around 90 percent of our food is imported. Hawaii is now the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered seed corn, which has resulted in an immense amount of spraying. We now use 17 times more restricted-use insecticides per acre than on the U.S. mainland. Monsanto, Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta have established research stations on four of our eight islands. These research stations are located near Hawaiian homestead land, which are areas designed to protect native Hawaiian people in the form of 99-year leases at an annual rental of $1. Consequently, Native Hawaiians of the lowest socioeconomic bracket are now disproportionately exposed to the herbicides that are sprayed by these biotech companies. Children who attend school near these testing sites have begun to be frequently sent home sick. These communities have become “cancer clusters”, and Hawaii now has 10 times the national rate of birth defects and illnesses.   

As the No. 1 public university in the world, UC Berkeley has set the standard in so many aspects for what academic institutions should aspire to. Becoming an herbicide-free campus is yet another opportunity for UC Berkeley to make a statement about the social responsibility that they have for human health and the environment. This issue hits close to home, literally, and I encourage you to join me, as I am not going to stop fighting for a safe learning environment until UC Berkeley becomes herbicide-free.

Mackenzie Feldman is a third-year undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying society and environment and minoring in food systems.

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  • Mackenzie

    We officially made our Herbicide-Free Cal campaign page. “Like” it and check it out for updates!

  • Cammy

    After spending time in Europe I see how behind we are in our banning of toxic pesticides, chemicals, etc… Pregnant women, babies and children are most vulnerable, but over time we all eventually are exposed to the toxic soup found in our water, land, grass and food. Finally flame retardants are being phased out of furniture, but round up is still everywhere – from Walmart, to Target. It’s sprayed in parks, fields and golf courses. The biggest problem in America is a co-mingling of “scientists” and industry – in other words paid scientists to vouch for the safety of chemicals that aren’t safe. When there’s profit to be made it’s at the expense of the health of the citizens of the US.

  • Mackenzie

    Thank you everyone for these thoughtful comments! Keep fighting the good fight and continuing to educate others!- Mackenzie

  • Joey

    Awesome, inspiring, well written article!

  • Bev Jo

    Thank you so much for this brilliant article. Of course the pesticide industry produces false studies and statistics. I had a doctor friend who worked for a company (to get her green card) where the sole purpose was to provide statistics that “proved” it was safe to have toxic incinerators in poor ghetto neighborhoods. Yes, follow the money.

    People have known for decades that no pesticides are safe. What kills plants or other animals, harms humans. We might not immediately drop dead, but the long term health effects are known.

    There is always another way to control “weeds,” as people here are commenting. The “esthetics” of people dying from cancer is not very nice either. But actually each “weed” is a beautiful plant, any of which are edible and medicinal.

    To keep it simple, how can UC or anyone justify causing one more case of cancer or chronic illness?

  • Jack Gescheidt

    Thank you Mackenzie for taking on this urgent issue involving not just the health of the local community you valiantly wish to protect, but one that affects MILLIONS of other people around the world, too. We have all been sold a bill of goods: that toxic herbicides are safe when they are NOT, and that they are necessary which they are certainly NOT. Both science (from Rachel Carson in 1962!) to simple common sense has been buried beneath the BILLIONS of dollars (not just millions of dollars) of chemical company profits which have also bought off much of the U.S. govt’s. regulatory capability (regulators and politicians who take the money). READ MORE FOLKS:

  • Thank you for taking action on this important issue. Here is a little information which I hope will help you achieve your goals.

    Although Monsanto has done everything it could to discredit the classification of glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen” by WHO, they have not been entirely successful. The State of California proposed to require the labelling of all glyphosate products as carcinogens shortly after WHO made its decision. California was immediately sued by Monsanto to prevent it from implementing that policy. In April 2017, Monsanto finally lost that lawsuit and California immediately announced its intention to require the labelling of glyphosate as a carcinogen.

    Here is a map of places all over the country that have adopted pesticide reform policies: (Source: Beyond Pesticides)
    Many of those places are in California. It IS possible to stop using pesticides. Many places have done so, usually because people like you have demanded that they do.

    There are methods of turf maintenance that do not use chemicals. Chip Osborne is a nationally recognized expert on organic methods of turf maintenance: He recently gave a local workshop on organic turf maintenance for Parents for a Safer Environment. Over 80 people who use pesticides for lawn maintenance attended that workshop.

    If UCB had been paying attention to that issue, they could have attended that workshop. Mr. Osborne consults with land managers all over the country. If UCB wants to clean up its act, hiring Mr. Osborne is one of their options. You should not be required to solve UCB’s problems.

    Finally, you should know that UCB is using a lot of pesticides EVERYWHERE on their properties. Many of those applications are being done by contractors. Here is an article about one of many UCB properties where herbicides are sprayed regularly: UCB is NEVER posting application notices when they spray. People who want to stay away from places that have been sprayed, do not have that option.

    Best of luck with this important project and THANK YOU!

  • NotborninBerkeley

    Congrats for taking on this issue, Mackenzie! Personally I think it’s an outrage that the grounds manager only agreed to stop spraying if you do something. We all know the solution to weeds – handpick them early! UC groundspeople mow and blow (when blowers are supposed to be banned in Berkeley), and spray roundup on the tiniest weeds. It’s particularly ironic to see this around the College of Natural Resources buildings. Regardless of the dangers of glyphosate, I would love to see this change.

  • 安百瑞

    Glyphosate is not the only toxin commonly applied and present around campus. Anywhere where there are commercial prepared food outlets (on South side and North side) toxins will be sprayed on the ground in lieu of actually managing the disposal of food waste. The campus itself does not provide even adequate passive waste recovery systems (recycling et all) and the various bin labeling is mostly for show.

    Older era toxins (poisons) such as atrazine are still detectable, and, since they are supposed to decay, therefore still being used. Worst culprits, again, typically lawn and garden maintenance and food outlets. Berkeley mayor’s office and UC admin need to bring fewer people into town for cultural events until they spend adequately to make sure the campus and town remain clean, and free of pestilence by nontoxic means. Of the thirty million that UCOP socked away, it would be nice to see a couple million used to turn the campus and immediate environment properly managed as green space, not green fee space, or day on the green space. There is no reason it cannot be used to grow edible plant matter, but that may mean less Greek theater revelry, (never adequately clean up on Hearst of Galey) and fewer campus mass social events, and less groundskeeping mentality and more sustainable gardening.

  • Killer Marmot

    Here is a quote from a May 2016 UN report of the “Joint FAO/WHO Meeting On Pesticide Residues.”

    Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide. Several epidemiological studies on cancer outcomes following occupational exposure to glyphosate were available. The evaluation of these studies focused on the occurrence of NHL (non-Hodgkin lymphoma). Overall, there is some evidence of a positive association between glyphosate exposure and risk of NHL from the case–control studies and the overall metaanalysis.

    However, it is notable that the only large cohort study of high quality found no evidence of an association at any exposure level. Glyphosate has been extensively tested for genotoxic effects using a variety of tests in a wide range of organisms. The overall weight of evidence indicates that administration of glyphosate and its formulation products at doses as high as 2000 mg/kg body weight by the oral route, the route most relevant to human dietary exposure, was not associated with genotoxic effects in an overwhelming majority of studies conducted in mammals, a model considered to be appropriate for assessing genotoxic risks to humans. The Meeting concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic at anticipated dietary exposures. Several carcinogenicity studies in mice and rats are available. The Meeting concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic in rats but could not exclude the possibility that it is carcinogenic in mice at very high doses. In view of the absence of carcinogenic potential in rodents at human-relevant doses and the absence of genotoxicity by the oral route in mammals, and considering the epidemiological evidence from occupational exposures, the Meeting concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet. The Meeting reaffirmed the group ADI for the sum of glyphosate and its metabolites of 0–1 mg/kg body weight on the basis of effects on the salivary gland. The Meeting concluded that it was not necessary to establish an ARfD for glyphosate or its metabolites in view of its low acute toxicity.

    Bottom line: A connection between glysophate and cancer in humans is not well established.

    • JQW

      The FAO is well known to be captured by agribusiness and the food industry. Another fairly recent report–World Health Organization. 2015. International Agency for Research on Cancer Monographs Volume 112: Evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and heribicides. March 20. pp. 1–2.—concludes that “The herbicide glyphosate and the insecticides malathion and diazinon were classified as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A).”

      I assume that the WHO is more likely to be actually concerned about people’s health than the FAO.