Natural versus artificial: Which is greenest?
If you answered natural, congratulate yourself. A local natural tree is more ecologically friendly than an artificial tree, unless you keep the artificial one for more than 20 years, according to a 2009 Quebec study. This life-cycle analysis compared a spruce tree growing 150 kilometres from Montreal to a plastic tree imported from China. Greenhouse gas emissions and raw materials were the main determinants of this conclusion. Artificial trees can also release volatile chemicals called phthalates, which disrupt our hormones (endocrine disruptors).
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Despite this environmental edge, natural Christmas trees may be risky for ecosystems. To protect trees from pests and to limit competition with herbaceous plants, many tree farms use pesticides.
Protecting pine trees from pests: Is it really necessary?
The number one enemy of the balsam fir, a tree well-known for its fragrance, is an aphid that attacks the buds and causes deformation of needles. If you choose a Fraser fir, the buds do not hatch at the time the aphids are most damaging, so it requires less insecticide.
The year 2016 marked the end of use of an effective but toxic insecticide, diazinon. Among alternative products registered for use on Christmas trees in Canada is imidacloprid. It belongs to the family of neonicotinoids or "neonics", which have been linked to declines of bee populations. Beyond their impacts on pollinators, neonics carry several other risks, notably for aquatic insects that are the basis of several ecosystems and for earthworms that are engineers of our soil. They are relatively persistent in the environment and result in widespread contamination of surface waters and are even sometimes detected in groundwater in agricultural areas. Unless public consultations lead to a change of plan, Health Canada is planning to ban it within three to five years.
The search for less toxic alternatives is in full swing in Quebec. For at least 15 years, we have learned more about pests. A Phytosanitary Warning Network producers when pest populations become a concern in a region, and agronomists regularly screen plantations. Thus, insecticide applications are no longer systematic and routine, but are rationalized according to the risks of damage to fir trees.
At Quinn Farm, near Montreal, no insecticide treatment was required in 2016, and only one was used the previous year. The farm has beehives in its plantation, so they take great to reduce use of pesticides that could harm bees.
To find out if your tree has been produced in an environmentally friendly way, ask growers if they are practising integrated pest management, suggests biologist François Gendron of the Estrie Agri-Environmental Club.
Limit competition in plantations
To maximize tree growth, controlling herbaceous vegetation under the trees should also be carried out. While some growers remove vegetation over the entire plantation, most retain vegetation cover between rows. These plants minimize fertilizer runoff, stabilize the soil and support pollinators and insects that control pest populations.
Herbicides, such as those formulated with glyphosate, are common weed killers because they are inexpensive and easy to use, but they pose a number of environmental and human health risks. Some producers have abandoned herbicides and instead use mechanical mowing. In well-aligned plantations with well-spaced rows, it is easy to use a lawnmower. To avoid damaging young tree trunks, some producers use precision weeding guided by infrared cameras.
At Quinn Farm near Montreal and in another organic farm in France, an idea that seemed far-fetched was adopted. They let sheep graze in the plantation! Since then, they no longer need herbicides. "They do a good job," Philippe Quinn says.
**Do organic Christmas trees exist?
Organic production does not use the most toxic synthetic pesticides. No Christmas tree producer is certified organic in Canada, where the current standards concern mainly food, according to Jérôme-Antoine Brunelle, coordinator for organic agriculture development at the Union of Agricultural Producers. Its association would look positively at widening the spectrum of this standard in the country.
Without standards or verifications, you will have to trust producers if they tell you they grow organically, but some market themselves as such. In particular, close to Rouyn-Noranda in northern Quebec, producer Jacquelin Thibault of Tibo farm uses no synthetic input. "Why use fertilizers that make the hay grow so tall that it must then be constantly mowed?'' he asks. He simply lets nature do its job. And to fight insect pests? "They do not like it here; it's way too cold," he says laughing. He praises his fresh cut pines that do not lose their needles and have a natural shape. If organic pine trees can take two extra growth years to reach the conventional size of about two metres, the wait does not appear to hurt his business, claims the owner of 10,000 trees.
According to Jimmy Downey of the Quebec Christmas Tree Producers' Association, organic production in Quebec would significantly increase production costs, which could limit demand. In France, a producer of organic trees maintains that their trees sell at the same price as conventional ones. They save on agro-chemical inputs but have higher labour costs. The Buttonwood farm near Seattle on the West Coast maintains that demand is strong for their new product.
**In brief ...
There are several organic Christmas tree producers in the U.S., but they account for less than one per cent of domestic sales. Quebec is the largest Canadian producer and exports its trees mainly to the U.S. market. Natural Christmas tree production support whole villages, according to Émilie Turcotte-Côté, agronomist at the Estrie Agri-Environmental Club.
Our trees are becoming more environmentally friendly, but there is a need for increased investment in research and development. In the meantime, ask your producers the right questions and encourage good practices.
For those who still have an artificial tree, the most ecological choice is to keep it as long as possible, because it will last hundreds of years in a landfill!