Emory University. Image credit: Courtesy of Herbicide-Free Campus

Rewilding the 700-acre Campus of Emory University

Herbicide-free Campus (HFC), a youth-run and women-led environmental organization, was born in 2017 when two UC Berkeley student-athletes discovered that herbicides were sprayed around their beach volleyball court. Astounded, the young women spoke to the Grounds Manager and organized the team to pick weeds as an herbicide alternative. This momentum rippled out to become a campus-wide movement, with the Grounds Manager initiating an organic pilot project on the campus's two largest green spaces. HFC expanded to the rest of the University of California campuses in 2018 and expanded nationally in 2019.

Herbicide-Free Emory (HFE) is currently one of HFC's university chapters in its second year of guidance. Nested in metropolitan Atlanta, HFE works to uplift organic management and sustainable landscaping and urban development in a region with deep seeded environmental inequities. Motivated by the detrimental impact of pesticides and industrial waste found in Emory's backyard, Herbicide-Free Emory started their fight to end herbicide application on campus.

HFC's primary objective is that by the end of 2022, Emory University will have committed to phasing out the use of herbicides. They are seeking funding to hire Chip Osborne, an organic horticulture expert (they used his services at UC Berkeley to conduct a successful transition to an organic campus) to transition two green spaces at Emory University, as well as funding to continue providing tools and resources to the HFE student group so they can best support Facilities Management to prepare for the transition.

The Emory team currently handles the campus's 731 acres through integrated pest management—a strategy intended to marry organic land care with herbicide usage as necessary. The management reality, however, is a campus dependent on synthetic herbicides. Emory University utilizes herbicides for two reasons: upkeep of ornamental horticulture and invasive species management. Focusing on the latter, most herbicide usage is used to fight off invasive plants like kudzu, English ivy, and Chinese privet. There are, however, ways to manage the land without the use of herbicides. We must turn to Indigenous land stewards of the past to implement non-toxic approaches and rewild spaces for future generations.

This project will be accomplished in partnership with Emory students, the grounds team, Sustainability Directors, and a professional horticulturist. All stakeholders will collaborate to create a plan for an Organic Pilot Project, which will be developed specifically for Emory's project goals, considering aesthetic needs, climate-smart practices, water usage goals, and existing soil composition. The plan will incorporate native species and lay the groundwork for what is desired and possible in other areas of the campus.

Success looks like a deep commitment to long-term, institutionalized change. Emory has the potential to become a model for what safe, sustainable land care can be in the Southeast. We see universities as fertile ground for radical change-making. Transitioning campus landscapes to organic provides a model and demonstrate a proof of concept with best practices for transforming other institutional grounds and public spaces. HFC generates data to show that transitioning is economical, practical, and scalable.

Since banning neonicotinoids in 2014, Emory University has strived to serve as a sustainable leader in the region. Implicit in this goal is eliminating herbicide products and, more pointedly, land care chemicals linked to adverse human and environmental health effects. Herbicide-Free Emory was created to advocate for this necessary shift and promote intersectional change that uplifts environmental and climate justice. A focus was placed on eliminating synthetic glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup because of the likely carcinogenic nature of the chemical. In response to HFE's efforts, the Emory facilities management team has reduced glyphosate usage by about 25% over 731 acres.

A main tenet of the HFE mission is community education - in the belief that to unify the population against toxic land care chemicals, people must be equipped with knowledge surrounding the issue. HFE works to disseminate easily digestible and accessible scientific information to students, faculty, and general community members. This initiative spans educational training and events to social media messaging that easily disseminates the scientific research and policy surrounding pesticide use.

The Emory University chapter of Herbicide-Free Campus is only one of its many campus communities. HFC works with campuses across the country to create a site-specific approach to organic land care through student-led initiatives. Its overarching goal is for every school in the country to be herbicide-free by 2030! The work is intersectional and multifaceted, tying the issue of rampant herbicide use to the health of our food system, waterways, climate, soil, and pollinators.

HFC believes that if we empower students to transform their university grounds, not only will campuses be moved to do the right thing due to pressure from students -- who hold a great deal of political power in universities -- but students will emerge as interdisciplinary leaders capable of tackling the most pressing environmental crises facing our planet. Herbicide-free Campus is uplifting the next generation of changemakers to believe that their voices and their visions for the world matter.

Pesticides are also a source of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily due to widespread agricultural usage. Shifting HFC's approach to smaller-scale land management reduces global greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to the climate justice movement. As many of our pattern institutions hold influence over their geographical area and neighboring community, including other institutions and businesses, the success of this project can promote more significant change. Similarly, a transition towards organic management will change Emory University's perspectives on food procurement and dining, pushing local farms towards organic and supporting farms and businesses that have already made the transition.

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