“A toxic alien is taking over Russia”, is the headline of an opinion piece in The New York Times on October 3. Russian journalist and science writer Maria Antonova actually wrote about Sosnovsky`s hogweed. Despite the exaggerated figures, her statement in the NYT opinion piece can be assessed as mostly true.
Dill on steroids
Antonova draws on three main facts. The first of them is a statement about the danger of hogweed. According to her, Sosnovsky`s hogweed was brought by Soviet botanists to the European territory of the Soviet Union from the Caucasus region in the middle of the 20th century. The plant was distinguished by its unpretentiousness, it grew rapidly and therefore could serve as an excellent feed for cattle. However, its danger became apparent much later. The hogweed turned out to be unsuitable as feed for cows: its sap is poisonous and can cause severe chemical burns. Moreover, the plant grows very quickly, and is almost indestructible, so it started slowly capturing abandoned territories in Russia. Antonova cites the words of scientist Dmitry Geltman as proof. A well-known biologist in scientific circles adds details: the herbs of the European part of Russia cannot resist Sosnovsky`s hogweed, as it is stronger and more resilient.
To verify this statement, we turned to Yulia Vitalievna Sinitsyna, Candidate of Sciences in Biology, Associate Professor of the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology, Institute of Biology and Biomedicine, Lobachevsky University of Nizhny Novgorod. She talked about the nature of Sosnovsky`s hogweed, the most dangerous and most widespread type of hogweed in Russia. According to the expert, hogweed is a resilient plant. It can adapt to any, even the most difficult environmental conditions. Using its strong roots it literally sucks out all the useful substances from the ground, as a result, the hogweed is rapidly growing and can reach gigantic sizes (it grows up to 3-4 meters in height), and all the plants surrounding it die in its shade from a lack of nutrients in the soil. Moreover, Sosnovsky`s Hogweed is incredibly fertile. Each plant produces a large number of seeds, therefore, it is quite difficult to destroy it. Dr. Sinitsyna also noted that to combat hogweed, it is necessary to regularly treat its thickets with chemicals, however, such measures are taken with varying degrees of success, and only at the regional level.
The path from hectares to miles
The area of land contaminated with Sosnovsky`s hogweed is the second fact mentioned in the article. Antonova relies on data from the Moscow region government. “Even the heavily built-up Moscow region had almost 270 square miles contaminated with giant hogweed this summer”, she notes. We found an article from the RIAMO.RU Russian news portal, based on data from the Ministry of agriculture and food of the Moscow region from April this year. It is about the beginning of fight against Sosnovsky`s Hogweed in the Moscow region. According to this report, Sosnovsky`s Hogweed affected about 32 thousand hectares of land in the Moscow region. We converted hectares to square miles to compare the figures of the government and Antonova. Thus, the Moscow region government reports 123.5 square miles of the contaminated area, while the opinion piece in The New York Times gives almost twice the figure (270 square miles). We do not know the reason for the distortion of the numbers. However, we assume that this is a mere misunderstanding. Perhaps it appeared as a result of an incorrect conversion of hectares into a more understandable area measurement value for the American audience.
Alien vs. Predator
Another fact that the author of the article draws attention to is the disinterest of the Russian authorities in solving the problem of hogweed. Here’s a quote: “While some regional governments now try to spray problem zones with pesticides, Moscow hasn’t paid the problem any attention or sought to understand its scope”. Indeed, we found a large number of regional media publications on measures to combat hogweed in different regions of the country. For example, an article in Rossiyskaya Gazeta tells about the destruction of hogweed in the Nizhny Novgorod region. The article Enemy in a ravine dated July 21, 2020 talks about a plan to combat hogweed. In 2019, the regional government allocated 11 million rubles (120 414 euro) for the destruction of hogweed. In 2020, at the expense of the regional budget, 300 hectares (1,2 square miles) were cleared from hogweed in 12 districts of the region. In the Moscow region, among other measures, fines from 2 thousand to 1 million rubles (from 22 to 10 947 euro) are provided for land owners who do not destroy hogweed on their plots. However, we did not find data on weed control throughout Russia or even rough estimates of contaminated land. There is no mention of such details on the websites of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology and the Ministry of Agriculture of the Russian Federation, they were not included in the results of the All-Russian Agricultural Census of 2016. Relatively detailed maps of the distribution of hogweed in Russia are created by enthusiasts. For example, a map of the distribution of invasive plant species. Thus, we concluded that the issue of the distribution of hogweed today indeed remains a problem of an exclusively regional, but not federal scale.
In short, our research has shown that Sosnovsky`s Hogweed is a dangerous plant, which is rather difficult to destroy, although every region of Russia is fighting the weed. The author of the opinion piece in the New York Times exaggerated the scale of its distribution, which could have been the result of a mistake in the calculation, but the official statistics are also unpleasantly surprising. As a result, we can say that the statement ‘A Toxic Alien Is Taking Over Russia’ is mostly true.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Anastasiya Gavshina, Alena Krasnikova, Nikolay Tyagunov, Lobachevsky University, RU
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