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N.C. farm owner, author hopes to "restore Eden" by highlighting pollinators' plight

Elizabeth Hillborn, author of "Restoring Eden," signs copies of her book during an event at Flyleaf Books on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. Photo Courtesy of Satchel Walton.

Elizabeth Hilborn knew that something was wrong when she saw something strange in the wetland on her central North Carolina fruit farm. After a flood in spring 2017, she said it was eerily silent, with insects dead, frogs quiet and a thick gray muck on the surface of the water. 

Then, it got worse.

“The bats left the skies," Hilborn said. "My garden started failing due to lack of pollination. When I walked along the path to my farm, I was totally alone. There was no movement around me.” 

Hilborn, an environmental health scientist and honey bee specialist veterinarian, felt an obligation to use her experience to try to figure out what was happening on her farm. Her new book "Restoring Eden," which Hilborn discussed on Thursday at Flyleaf Books, documents that saga.

After reaching out to neighbors, colleagues and specialists, Hilborn came up with a list of contaminants she wanted chemists to test the water for. She eventually narrowed in on one culprit: a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoids are used widely in U.S. agriculture, and environmentalists like Hilborn are particularly concerned with how they are used to coat seeds, which makes the entire plant toxic to insects. The wide use of these pesticides, developed in the 1990s, has been linked to a decline in pollinator populations.

The European Union enforces a ban on neonicotinoid-coated seeds. Elley Schopler, one of Hilborn’s neighbors who attended the event at Flyleaf Books, said that on a recent trip to Germany she saw many more bugs than she usually sees in the United States. 

“It was so noticeable," Schopler said. "A giant difference. If you look at bug splatter on your car when you’re driving — I sound so old — but when we grew up there was lots of bug splatter on the windshield.” 

In the eyes of U.S. regulators, seeds coated with neonicotinoids are “treated articles,” meaning they do not fall under federal regulations targeting pesticides. Ten states have passed some regulations on neonicotinoids, with New York going the furthest by banning neonicotinoid-coated corn, soybean and wheat seeds by 2027.

In 2021, former N.C. Rep. Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe) introduced a bill in the General Assembly to restrict neonicotinoid use, which was never passed.

A Cornell University study found that while neonicotinoids had significant economic benefits in some of their applications, coated seeds only increased yields in a small proportion of fields. Farm advocacy groups have objected to bans.

Hilborn said she tries not to pay attention to the policy and politics surrounding pesticides, preferring to focus on the scientific side. She is an alumna of UNC and received a master's of Public Health from the Gillings School of Global Public Health, and got her veterinary degree at N.C. State University.

Hilborn signed copies of "Restoring Eden" at the Flyleaf event, which around two dozen people attended. 

“I just see farmland not being valued, and also I’d like to see efforts to conserve green space and wild space and animals,” Libby Broadwell, one of the attendees, said.   

While some readers have compared her book’s investigative writing style and anti-pesticide crusade to Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring," which also explored the environmental effects of pesticides, Hilborn herself didn’t think of that parallel while writing. 

Though the tradition of rural and farm-based environmentalism is as old as the environmental movement itself, Hilborn does not see herself as part of a wider ideological campaign. Instead, she sees herself as a person whose circumstances gave her an obligation to act.

“I understand that you can't just pull apart an ecosystem and think everything's just going to be okay," Hilborn said. "And I grow fruit, so every year, I see the result of this hollowing out of our biological support system. So that's my motivation.”


@dthlifestyle |

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