Text for an opinion piece about the chinch issue published in the Chronicle Herald on April 3, 2004. The subtitle given to it by the editors was 'HRM's pesticide bylaw problems can be solved using sustainable measures'.

It's a Chinch


Last year the Pesticide By-Law banning cosmetic use of pesticides in HRM came into full effect. There was really only one significant problem: chinch bug infestations resulted in 4 to 5-fold more applications for pesticide permits than were anticipated based on the partial ban in 2003. Over 99% of the nearly 3900 applications (reprersenting about 3% of properties) were for use of pesticides to control chinch; most were made between July 14 and Aug. 31, the peak period for chinch infestations. There was a 90% approval rate.

Unfortunately the pro-pesticide lobby has seized upon the (understandable) difficulty HRM/Clean Nova Scotia had in processing the applications to push their national agenda for establishing IPM as an alternative to pesticide bans. Under IPM (Integrated Pest Management) it is attempted to reduce use of pesticides, but not eliminate them. A draft memo of understanding forwarded to HRM staff from Landscape Nova Scotia on March 3 proposes a system in which landscaping companies certified in IPM would issue permits for pesticide use. HRM would be responsible for verifying the validity of the permits, but landscaping companies, not the city, would retain the records. This proposal has apparently been under discussion with HRM staff for some time.

A scheme of this sort would be a big step backwards. As well as being inconsistent with the intent of the by-law and the expressed will of a clear majority of HRM residents to ban cosmetic use of pesticides, it would detract significantly from the growing recognition of Halifax as a Smart City and a leader in sustainable development in urban regions.

Whatever process is adopted for granting permits, it must be conducted wholly by a third party that does not stand to benefit from sale of pesticides. This is the only way that the public can have trust in the system. It is also vitally important that a centralized electronic database is maintained; this will allow monitoring of geographical aspects of pest infestations and progress over time, and is essential for transparency of the process.

Beyond that issue, however, we need to recognize that the chinch problem is a well studied one, and that it can be resolved without use of pesticides. Chinch is NOT a dangerous exotic pest which must be exterminated before it spreads. Rather, the chinch bug has always been a normal component of the fauna of grasslands and lawns. It is the extensive damage to lawns by chinch that is new, not chinch itself. The first chinch problems were reported in Canada in the early 70s, and only since then has chinch become a major pest. The rise in chinch problems is associated largely with intensive fertilizer use on existing lawns and with the placement of only a few inches of sandy, low organic matter soil over fill or other base when new lawns are constructed. These practices make lawns susceptible to drought and thatch accumulation which are highly conducive to chinch. In turn, the use of pesticides to control chinch provides a short term fix without addressing the underlying causes.

In 2003, chinch was a major problem in HRM because of the coincidence of the pesticide by-law with (i) an abundance of poor quality lawn systems in newer developments; (ii) exceptionally droughty conditions in July such conditions are particularly conducive to chinch; high snow cover over the preceding winter may have also been a factor; (iii) lack of monitoring and prediction of the problem combined with absence of appropriate preventative cultural measures.

In 2004, we are in a much better position to deal with chinch, having been forewarned about the most susceptible lawns last year. I suggest the following two measures would foster a sustainable development approach to resolving the chinch problem.

First, permits that are given for properties on which chinch was reported last year should be linked to a requirement that the applicants have applied specific cultural practices to reduce susceptibility to chinch (e.g. dethatching, aeration, high mowing, reduced fertilizer use and weekly, deep watering); also that applicants have tried vacuuming or soap treatment to control infestations as soon as they are spotted.

Second, building codes should be changed to require that foundations for new lawns have a minimum of 8 inches of topsoil (after settling) and that 1 inch of grade A quality compost is incorporated in the soil on site. As well as greatly reducing chinch problems by increasing soil water holding capacity and biological activity, it will reduce other pest problems and provide nutrients.

These measures would deal with the chinch in a progressive manner that is consistent with HRM's leadership in this area. Further, they would encourage effective use of our compost production, generate business for landscapers and, most importantly, maintain the spirit of the by-law and the safety of our environment for people, pets and wildlife. Like the compost program, there would be a few years of transition but in the end we would achieve a truly sustainable solution, and enhance our reputation as a 'smart city'.

David Patriquin is a Professor of Biology at Dalhousie University