May 25, 2010

Worm poop is…a pesticide?

By Worm poop is…a pesticide?

Author: Timothy Sandefur

George Hahn is an entrepreneur who had an idea for a different kind of garden fertilizer—one made out of, yes, worm poop. Or “worm castings,” as they’re called in the trade.

Worm castings are a natural component of all healthy garden soil, and gardeners have long known that worms play a crucial role in making soil nutritious for plants. In fact, Charles Darwin himself wrote an entire book in the 1880s about the importance of worms in breaking down nutrients and helping plants to grow.

But Hahn’s fertilizer also helps make plants strong enough to resist infestation by bugs—and that’s where the trouble begins, because last year, bureaucrats at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation decided that Worm Gold is actually a pesticide, and can’t be sold in California without first being subjected to years of expensive scientific tests.

Most healthy plants repel bugs naturally by producing certain enzymes in their circulatory system. Simply put, they smell bad to pests. But when the soil is depleted or polluted, plants don’t create enough of the enzymes for the bugs to notice. By restoring the nutrients to the soil, Worm Gold helps plants resist bugs—just as eating healthy food will help you and me to resist infections by germs.

According to the Department of Pesticide Regulation, that makes Worm Gold a pesticide because they automatically classify any product as a pesticide if it’s promoted as causing pest “resistance” or “deterrence.” At a hearing last year, two of the Department’s officials even testified that they would classify water as a pesticide if it’s used to wash bugs off of plants. (And, in fact, organic gardeners frequently use water to keep aphids and other pests away from plants.) Even rat traps, or scarecrows, or barbed wire would qualify as pesticides under the Department’s interpretation!

In briefs filed today with the Sacramento Superior Court, we argue that this is unreasonably extreme. In fact, in a 1943 case, a California court rejected the Department’s effort to classify “gopher purge” as a pesticide. Like Worm Gold, gopher purge works by smelling bad to pests. The court held that the plant “was never represented as being a poison, or as being physically injurious to the gopher, or to be eaten by him, but only as being so obnoxious to his sense of smell as to discourage his presence in the immediate vicinity.” Thus it wasn’t a pesticide. In 1990, another court echoed this decision, noting that the Department has often “overstepped its authority.”

It may seem odd to be talking about worm poop—but it actually helps illustrate an important lesson. Ronald Reagan once said that the first goal of any bureaucracy is to protect the bureaucracy—but their second goal is to expand the bureaucracy. When California’s pesticide regulations were written, nobody expected that they would be applied to a natural substance that is already present in all natural soil anyway. But the bureaucratic imperative is to expand bureaucratic authority whenever possible. And the victims are not only hardworking entrepreneurs like George Hahn, but gardeners who want a natural, organic, safe alternative to dangerous chemical poisons.

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