Safety concerns about article on homemade organic pesticide recipes
I am writing with regard to your complaint October 3, 2010, and request November 2, 2010, for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning the May 23, 2003 publication at CBC.ca of an article on homemade organic pesticide recipes.
Your complaint expressed safety concerns about a “pesticide recipe” on the CBC.ca In Depth web page that called for the boiling of rhubarb leaves. The recipe was part of a broader In Depth feature with several recipes for organic or homemade pesticides. The specific recipe was the first one featured in the list.
In your complaint, you noted the hazard of the concoction and questioned the advisability and legality of posting it. You cited Health Canada's online advice about the risks of organic and homemade pesticides and wondered about the scientific credentials of those posting the material on CBC.ca.
In correspondence with you, CBC News' Director of Digital Media noted that most of the suggested recipes were relatively harmless. Rachel Nixon acknowledged that the rhubarb recipe could cause “symptoms of poisoning in some people and potentially death if large quantities are eaten.”
She noted the website clearly indicates the possible risks. The cautionary information reads: “NOTE: Rhubarb leaves contain high amounts of oxalic acid. If ingested, your heart will stop and you will die.” She also noted that the Health Canada information online about homemade pesticides is not regulatory, but advisory.
CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices doesn't deal directly with the questions at hand. Overall, though, CBC News says it strives for “journalistic excellence and best practices” in all its endeavours.
In my review, therefore, I had to determine if publication of this recipe constituted a best practice.
In the seven years since this recipe's publication, the Internet has broadened to become a plentiful source of information on the science of pesticides and the practice of preparing homemade varieties for the garden. Several significant gardening and science sites have emerged to offer the public vast amounts of information. In short, the context has changed for those 2003 recipes.
CBC.ca is not alone in carrying a recipe to boil rhubarb leaves to combat aphids, June beetles and fungus. The Sierra Club, among other organizations, recommends doing so. Like CBC.ca, several sites note the health risks involved and counsel caution. For its part, Health Canada notes that homemade pesticides do not undergo scientific evaluation or contain label directions for safe use or best results. Among the recipes it notes may pose health or environmental concerns, “recipes that require cooking, such as boiling rhubarb leaves . . .are potentially dangerous.”
As an aside: it appears that the CBC.ca cautionary wording on the hazards of boiling rhubarb leaves is excessive. Wikipedia.org, for example, suggests one would have to eat about five kilograms of the leaves to consume a lethal dose (although cooking the leaves with soda enhances their toxicity). Despite CBC's warning, any amount of ingestion wouldn't necessarily kill. In its correspondence with you, CBC News acknowledged that the warning was “somewhat overstated.”
CBC News did not violate its Journalistic Standards and Practices in publishing the recipe. There is no legal question inherent in the matter and CBC News acted responsibly in warning the public about the risks.
Even so, while the rhubarb concoction may be effective for pest control, its publication isn't necessarily effective as a journalistic best practice when safer organic options are available.
Given the enduring qualities of online journalism — the recipe at the heart of this complaint is seven-plus years old now, after all — responsible organizations can demonstrate public leadership by revisiting earlier work to provide better content in light of newly available information.
A central principle of journalism is to minimize harm. As an organization striving for best practices, CBC News could replace the recipe with a relatively safe and effective one that would not require an overwrought warning.