I ASKED two Edinburgh council workers to stop spraying weedkiller on my kerb a few years back, explaining that I’d rather have weeds than see poison spread around my neighbourhood.

As someone who has been concerned for decades about the toxic legacy of such pesticide products on human health and the environment, I had been following the case of father-of-three Dewayne Johnson, who sued the agrochemical corporation Monsanto for wrecking his health.

He had been required to spray its weedkiller, glyphosate, in his job as a school grounds-keeper.

Johnson won. In 2018, a California jury ruled that Monsanto had caused his terminal blood cancer – non-Hodgkin lymphoma – and awarded him $289m.

The landmark verdict intensified concerns about this commonly used weedkiller, which comes in various formulations, most commonly known as Roundup, but also under macho monikers, such as Rootblast and Eraser.

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My council operatives were using a knapsack sprayer with a long, flimsy, hand-held nozzle attachment. On a typically windy Edinburgh day, the spray drift was all around them, impossible not to inhale. Neither of them was wearing gloves nor protective mask.

I asked them if they were aware of the risk. Weren’t they in a union? It might back them if they refused to carry out this dangerous work. The GMB union now describes glyphosate as “a severe health risk to workers.”

What health and safety guidance, if any, had they been given?

The younger man looked queasy, and told me that he was leaving that job soon anyway. The older one shrugged his shoulders, with a 'It’s too late for me to care' comment.

When the investigative journalism platform The Ferret looked into this municipal toxic spraying in Scotland in 2020, it found that over 170,000 litres of glyphosate, classified as a probable cause of cancer, had been used by local authorities across Scotland in the preceding five years.

Almost all our councils spray hundreds of litres of herbicides containing this toxic substance around schools, parks, verges, cemeteries and other public green spaces.

And despite growing fears for public health and the environment, half of Scotland’s 32 councils told The Ferret that they had no plans to cut back their usage.

Pesticides are a treadmill. It takes strong resolve to jump off.

In North Lanarkshire, opposition councillors recently tried unsuccessfully to overturn that council’s progressive ban on weedkiller formulations containing glyphosate. Thankfully enlightened SNP and independent members stood their ground.

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But such forward-thinking action triggers the Neat and Tidy Brigade. And its foot soldiers in Scotland are legion.

I blame our Calvinist past for the pervasive notion that everything green, other than turf or trees, or lurid begonias and geraniums, planted at a regulation distance of 12 inches apart, counts as ill-kempt.

We pay a high price to create those expanses of pristine brown earth where absolutely nothing wild or native is allowed to grow.

To obtain that sterile, naff, cosmetic look, the Neat and Tidy Brigade will applaud the routine use of carcinogenic chemicals on the very same ground where our beloved pets roam and our little children play, rather than than have their sense of order disturbed by a dock leaf.

The Neat and Tidy Brigade has yet to embrace the concept of “gentle density”, where bare earth, so enticing to all manner of pests, is crowded out by abundant, self-selecting green growth.

We must abandon this old-school approach to landscape gardening. The rigid division between Bad Weed and Good Plant must go as we open up our senses to the joy of natural abundance and biodiversity.

Give me green ‘weeds’ at the base of a tree any day over brown, desiccated, herbicide-defoliated Ground Zero desolation.

Whether it’s due to council lack of resources or staff shortages, I’m cheered to see that more areas are being left untouched when once they were sprayed and mowed within an inch of their lives.

The resulting greening-up is easy on the eye, and good for the soul.

Councils are increasingly mowing paths through park grass, leaving larger areas untouched, so adding height, interest, and movement as the longer grasses sway in the breeze.

Roadside verges, previously scrubby grass dotted with litter and the odd persistent dandelion, are turning into mini-wildflower meadows.

Perhaps it’s by default but more councils seem to looking at alternatives to pesticide spraying.

Acid and salt-based foams are being trialled as glyphosate alternatives. Manual weeding by real people is back in favour, if under-funded.

Only gullible fools or box-tickers now believe that alternative pesticide formulations are shaping up to be anything other than next year’s herbicide scandal.

The wild plant conservation charity Plant Life wants us to realise that we can create a meadow in a space as small as one square-metre in a home or public garden or park, in community spaces, along road verges.

Councils just have to let the flowers bloom and set seed by cutting these areas less and later, allowing native species to increase year on year.

Within five years, the results are fabulous to see. The essence of planet-friendly permaculture.

Where once there was scruffy grass dotted with nettles, docks, thistles and a handful of buttercups, the area transforms into a species-rich meadow colonised by native blooms, floral tapestry of meadow buttercup, red clover, yellow rattle, oxeye daisy, eyebright, cat’s-ear, and more.

There are nearly 500,000 kilometres of rural road verge alone in the UK. This is equal to half of our remaining flower-rich grasslands and meadows.

Their potential, if allowed to ‘grow wild’, untreated with fossil-fuel derived herbicides, is enormous. Bolder and more biodiverse each year, they act as significant carbon sinks, and powerful magnets for pollinators.

A major impediment to progress is our last century obsession with conquering rather than working with nature.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Neat and Tidy Brigade just hasn’t seen it yet.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.