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.