By Catherine Porter

There’s no real choice between artificial and the old-fashioned, grown-from-the-earth Christmas tree.
True, the plastic kind are reusable. But the majority are made in Asian factories out of polyvinyl chloride, which contributes dioxin to the air during the manufacturing process and again if the tree is burned. Exposure to dioxins, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, can cause cancer and developmental and reproductive problems. But most people only hang onto their plastic trees for five years before chucking them into the landfill, where they’ll remain for centuries, or worse, they are burned in an incinerator. They can’t generally be recycled.
Real Christmas trees, on the other hand, provide wildlife habitat, protect against erosion, sequester carbon dioxide – something we need in a warming world – and even produce oxygen during the eight to nine years they grow before being cut and hauled to market. They’re 100 per cent renewable and recyclable. City trucks collect them from the curb in January and they’re ground into mulch for our parks.
To boot, they’re considered a profitable agricultural crop – a rarity today, when Toronto garbage collectors earn more than double the income of an average Ontario farm worker, and when more and more farmland is being gobbled up by developers and urban sprawl.
Ontario’s Christmas tree industry is puny compared to Quebec’s and also overshadowed by both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. According to Ross Gough of the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario, many of the trees stocking the yards of big box stores around Toronto are trucked in from there. Why help protect eastern farmland when our own is so threatened? Add Christmas trees to your “Buy Local” list, and if you are picking up one from a lot, make sure it’s from the Green Belt. That’s the 720,000-hectare swath around Greater Toronto protected from development three years ago by the provincial government.
Many local growers spray their Christmas trees with chemical pesticides. One of the most popular sprays is Roundup – a herbicide produced by Monsanto that contains glyphosate. Although the Canadian government and many farmers consider it benign, scientists have linked it to recurrent eczema, respiratory problems, elevated blood pressure and allergic reactions. It’s banned in Denmark.
As for the insecticides, a North Carolina professor discovered traces of them in the urine of Christmas tree workers and their families, putting them at greater risk for neurodegenerative diseases.
There is actually no such thing as an organic Christmas tree in Ontario. As Hugh Martin, the Ontario government’s manager of organic crop production puts it, the focus of certification has been on food and “most people don’t eat Christmas trees.”
But there are many local Christmas tree growers who don’t use pesticides at all, or at least only sparingly.
Even big growers such as Alliston’s Somerville Nurseries employ integrated pest management, which means they mow between trees to keep weeds down and only spray to combat an infestation of spider mites or spruce budworms.
Murray Crones hasn’t used any pesticides on his 25-acre tree farm east of Newmarket for more than 30 years. Pests, the 85-year-old farmer says, “have never bothered us enough to do anything with them.”
So before driving out to cut down your own tree, call the farm and ask if they use chemicals. That’s what Rick Smith, the executive director at Environmental Defence plans on doing. He will head out to a tree farm in the Green Belt that’s pesticide-free.
“The most environmentally friendly alternative,” he says, “is doing the old-fashioned thing.”