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Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Unintended Consequences

This year, a lot of gardeners have had plants go sick. A few samples have got as far as experts who have diagnosed "hormone" weedkiller damage. That answer wasn't well received. Some of the affected gardeners claimed never to have used weedkiller near their vegetable plots. Others, supporters of the "organic" movement have never used the stuff in their garden at all.

All they'd ever used was good wholesome farm manure. That turned out to be the clue. It contained aminopyralid, a powerful selective weedkiller introduced a couple of years ago by Dow AgroSciences.

It's interesting stuff. It doesn't kill grass but it kills a lot of other plants that might be growing alongside. Farmers sprayed it onto pasture, cows and horses ate the grass and produced manure in the usual way. Aminopyralid may not kill grass but it sticks to it, even on the ride through the animal's digestive system.

The legal situation is tricky. The gardener can sue the manure supplier - usually a farmer. However the farmer may never have used aminopyralid. Maybe he bought in hay from some other farmer who did. Dow AgroSciences knew about the potential for this disaster - and warn about it on the aminopyralid label.

It's a classic cock-up. Nobody was evil or perfect.

I think it's more an example of the dangers of a complex structure that only works if everybody gets it dead right. There are lots of structures like this around. Engineers like me can't stand them.

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