Tao Orion is the author of “Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration.” She is a permaculture designer, teacher, homesteader, and mother living in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon. I interviewed her on May 18, 2020, for my podcast, “Voices for Nature & Peace.” What follows is a partial transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity. [Listen to the entire interview here]
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume, macska moksha press
K: A lot of people have heard the term, “invasive species” and most of them of course are assuming it’s something bad, but when it comes right down to it, it’s actually very difficult to define the term and we could even say that there isn’t one definition of that term.
T: Yes, that’s something that I found really interesting as I was researching my book, because I was really trying to find out if there was a clear, objective description of what an invasive species is, and I found that even the National Invasive Species Council—which in the US is the federal government level board that looks at invasive species issues—spent years on deliberating on the definition and even so, they weren’t able to come up with something that I felt was purely an objective description that could be [applied] in all contexts. It seemed to vary from place to place and time to time.
K: Monsanto was one of the companies involved in setting [that council] up.
T: That’s another disturbing element about how the big frenzy around invasive species and the purported damage that they do came to be so popular; a lot of that was informed and funded by pesticide interests to spur the sale of products, herbicides in particular, to deal with species invasions.
K: I think that most people are probably not aware of the fact that the use of pesticides and herbicides has been rising over the last 20 years, not falling. I think people hear about organic agriculture and they think we must be on the right path. But due in part to the war on invasives and also due to genetically modifying crops to be Round-up Ready so they can survive the use of pesticides—these two things seem to have driven an increase in the use of pesticides over the last 20 years.
T: Yes, it’s definitely alarming. My background is in organic agriculture. I was immersed in that world. Even before writing this book, I was under the impression that herbicides were somewhat less toxic in the realm of pesticide toxicity [as opposed to insecticides or fungicides, for example]. In researching herbicides more for invasive species management and agriculture in general, I learned a lot more about their toxicity and insidious toxicity to insects and mammals and other lifeforms that I don’t think gets talked about enough. People assume they’re more ecologically benign, but really they’re not, and that’s important to bring to the table.
K: One thing you mentioned in your book that I hadn’t thought about much before is that it’s not only the active ingredient in a pesticide, but also the adjuvants—the things that they add to the active ingredient to help it stick to plants or to help make it soluble in water, etc.
T: Yeah, that was a big realization for me too. We talk about these two different terms: “Round Up” is the trade name of the herbicide, of which “glyphosate” is considered the active ingredient. Glyphosate is the ingredient that’s tested for pesticide registration purposes, but that might be only ten percent of a mixture that’s sold in the bottle. The rest of that solution is made up of other ingredients that help the herbicide stay on the plant if it rains or if its windy, or help the herbicide active ingredient penetrate the cells of the plant. A lot of these are trade secrets so they’re not tested and the manufacturers don’t have to say what’s in there. But one compound that has been pulled out and studied by independent researchers is POEA [polyoxyethyleneamine], which has been shown to make glyphosate penetrate human placental cells. So even if you come into contact with glyphosate itself, that wouldn’t necessarily happen, but if you come into contact with Round Up, which contains this adjuvant, POEA, it can actually then allow the glyphosate to enter into the cell. Because that’s what it’s in there to do.
K: The reason we’ve been talking about pesticides because herbicides are such a big part of getting rid of “invasive” species… But your book tries to turn things on its head and to question the concept of whether we should be trying to eradicate them.
T: Yes. I was shocked when I started working in the field of ecological restoration, coming from a background in organic agriculture. I had heard of “invasive species” before but when I got into this context, I was around people who did this professionally, it was just assumed that I was going to use herbicides and I would be totally fine with that, because that’s just what everybody did. The whole context was, “we have to get rid of these plants at all costs, and if we do, everything will be okay.” [Laughs.] That’s the the framework in which we’re approaching ecosystem restoration, and to me, I was amazed because from a more holistic perspective, I could see right off the bat that in every case where invasive species were thriving, there were other things going on in the ecosystem that pesticides weren’t going to address.
It’s the same in conventional agriculture. If you’re having, quote, pest pressure issues, the issue isn’t the pest, the issue is the soil or the plant stress or drought stress. There’s all these different things playing into the manifestation of pest pressure in the ecosystem. So, taking that knowledge a few steps further to ecosystem restoration I think is really necessary. A lot of people involved in these contexts are really highly trained ecologists and it’s still hard for me to square that with the belief that herbicides, pesticides are the only solution. These are often people who are shopping at organic food markets, and only buy organic food, and believe really strongly in that framework for food production, and yet are making decisions about ecosystem restoration outside of agricultural contexts that rely on pesticides and I just think that really needs to be questioned.
I had some very interesting discussions over the years and maybe the needle is starting to shift a little bit, although as you mention, sometimes these discussions flare up online where people are really quite defensive about their position and belief around this.
K: The issue tends to infect any discussion around plants. I’ve been using a couple of plant ID groups on Facebook because I’m in a new area and I’m seeing things coming up and I’m like, “What is this?” Of course if you’re in a native plant group, that’s definitely going to be someplace where [the invasive framework] is strong. You know, a native-plants-equals-good, non-native-plants-equals-bad, black and white paradigm. Which brings us around to looking at the invasive plant not being a problem in and of itself but of being a symptom of something going on.
T: That’s a huge part of the conversation that a lot of folks really aren’t willing to easily engage in, but the design of our livelihood system has really degraded ecosystems to a place where native flora and fauna aren’t thriving. You know, to really sit with that, and acknowledge it, think about how we might approach things differently as a basis for our understanding is challenging. It’s a lot easier to blame the messenger. Also I think one of the things that’s really missing from the discussion of native plants is the fact that native ecosystems were or are managed by indigenous people. They don’t just exist in a vacuum, free from people’s influence and the whole idea of this “pristine” wilderness is very much a western, colonial thought pattern that definitely needs to be disrupted.
K: What you’re referring to in part is that when people are designating a plant as invasive or non-native, there’s a point in time they’re referring to, and that might be different from place to place, but it’s generally accepted in the United States that anything anything that showed up after 1492 is not native. There are people who are willing to describe most non-native plants as “invasive” or throw them in that bin as soon as possible, and then the poisons come out, so this is an important issue.
T: Yes, but we don’t really know the social, ecological, economic context that was going on at that point in time that led to a particular assemblage of plants. There’s no doubt that the floral and faunal assemblies were different, but we should think really hard about why they’ve changed. Draining the wetlands of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys in California has major ecological implications. Damming the Colorado River for hydro-power and irrigation capacity has major ecological implications. These bigger scale things that we do—that we support—are going to change the surrounding ecosystem. If we can acknowledge that and observe what’s happening because of those major shifts, I think we’ll be in a better position to understand so called “invasions” from a more holistic perspective.
K: Because the entry of an invasive plant or animal into a landscape is in virtually all cases preceded by a human-caused disturbance of some kind.
T: It’s interesting. When I was writing, [I wondered if I] should I put forward the idea of reclaiming a different name because “invasive species” has kind of this negative connotation, but the more I looked into evolutionary biology and some of the ways—in the deep time perspective—how systems have changed, “invasion” is one of these processes and it’s not unnatural. Taking that longer term perspective is important as well. That’s how plants came to be on land. There were marine beds of algae hanging out in the shallow seas a couple billion years ago and eventually, speciation happened because of changing conditions and the land was “invaded” by those plants. You just see that change over time leading to the type of biodiversity that we have now, punctuated by other kinds of events of course, but it’s not something that’s “outside the realm of nature,” which is how invasive species are situated in a lot of discussions.