Berry disturbing: Scientists warn proposed strawberry fumigant is potentially toxic
California Department of Pesticide Regulation is moving ahead to replace methyl bromide -- with something possibly more hazardous.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010 - 00:51
Summer officially began June 23, and this is the season we get to enjoy delicious, fresh fruits sweetened by the sun. California's temperate climate makes it an ideal environment for agriculture. Throughout the state, large-scale farms produce much of the fruits and vegetables, not to mention tree nuts, consumed in the U.S. Strawberries are one of California's star crops — there's even a California Strawberry Commission. Golden State farmers grow roughly 90 percent of all strawberries Americans consume, so how those berries are grown and processed is a matter of interest across the country. And it looks like there's about to be a major change in how strawberry farms prepare and treat their soil, with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) poised to register methyl iodide for agricultural use.
If approved, methyl iodide gas will be pumped into the ground to "sterilize" the soil before strawberries are planted and, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) reports, it will also be used to a lesser extent in nurseries and nut tree production. Methyl iodide was proposed to the DPR in April of this year for registry as a replacement for growers' current soil fumigant, methyl bromide, which emits ozone-depleting chemicals. The EPA intended for methyl bromide to be completely phased out and replaced with non-ozone depleting pesticides by 2005, in alignment with the Montreal Protocol and the Clean Air Act, but apparently nothing suitable has come available — until now (according to manufacturer Arysta, which has pitched its methyl iodide fumigant Midas directly to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office, according to a Pesticide Action Network [PAN] press release, issued in July 2009).
Since then, a panel of scientists reviewed methyl iodide and assessed its public health and safety impacts and suitability for agricultural use. The Ventura County Star reports that this group of experts testified before the State Senate Food and Agriculture Committee in June with the unequivocal opinion that it is not advisable to allow methyl iodide to be used on California crops. DPR Director Mary-Ann Warmerdam's response to the panel's opposition: "The external review panel affirmed that, yes, this material has extraordinary characteristics that need to be taken care of." The DPR insists, however, that its stringent application guidelines and rules for handling, stricter even than federal instructions for methyl iodide, will be sufficient protection for farm workers and surrounding communities.
Groups like Californians for Pesticide Reform, United Farm Workers and Pesticide Action Network, as well as the scientists who gave their testimony, disagree. As reported in the New York Times, Dr. Theodore Slotkin, professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University, expressed concern about the "silent pandemic" of health problems that workers and residents can expect to experience with exposure to methyl iodide. This is a chemical, after all, which is used to induce cancer in laboratory animals.
It seems a cruel choice: introduce carcinogens into our farming community or deplete the ozone layer, intensifying the effects of global warming. All signs indicate that for the time being, the ozone and Midas are going to win with the California DPR — which will make those strawberries a lot less sweet.