From SantaCruzSentinel.com, Steve Schnaar, 30 Oct 2011.
In a clear case of big money running politics, last year the California Department of Pesticide Regulation [DPR] approved an extremely dangerous chemical called methyl iodide for use as a pesticide, with strawberry production as the largest intended use. While no use is yet slated for Santa Cruz or Monterey counties — the largest strawberry producing regions in the state — on Oct. 12 there was an application approved in Santa Barbara County. It is imperative that we on the Central Coast stop its spread into our region.
The dangers posed by methyl iodide are severe: cancers, neurological disorders, fetal death or developmental damage, thyroid problems, groundwater contamination. In a letter to the EPA, dozens of chemists and biochemists from around the country — including six Nobel laureates–declared, “we are perplexed that U.S. EPA would even consider the introduction of a chemical like methyl iodide into agricultural use.”
The state’s DPR commissioned a panel of scientists to review the issue, which called the chemical, “difficult, if not impossible to control,” and concluded that “any anticipated scenario” for its agricultural use would “have significant adverse impact on the public health.” John Froines, chair of that commission, later described methyl iodide in a Senate hearing as “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.”
Why then have our public officials permitted the use of this poison? A superficial answer would be that they bowed to pressure from Arysta LifeScience, the manufacturer of the pesticide, as evidenced in recently exposed memos from the DPR. The underlying problem, however, is the flawed logic of Big Ag, which takes vast monocrops as a given. Unknown in nature, such large areas planted with only a single species, year after year, are indeed hard to maintain without harsh chemical poisons.
For decades, strawberry growers have relied on another fumigant called methyl bromide to sterilize the soil before planting. Although less harmful than methyl iodide, methyl bromide also poses significant health risks. In fact, in response to a 1999 lawsuit, the EPA just acknowledged that their approval of methyl bromide for locations near schools posed adverse and disproportionate health impacts to Latino schoolchildren. The affected sites include six schools in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, where we’re all familiar with the sight of fields covered in plastic tarps which occasionally fail to keep the toxic gas contained.
In the wacky world of American politics, it is not the direct human health effects that are leading to a phase-out of methyl bromide, but the fact that it depletes the ozone layer. Already phased-out years ago by most of the world, our state continues to extend its use until “a viable alternative” is found.
The reality is that many farmers have already dropped methyl bromide. According to the California Strawberry Commission, it is no longer used on a full 35 percent of California’s strawberries. In addition, organic growers like Swanton Berry Farms have successfully grown strawberries in our region for decades.
For the state to endanger farmworkers and children to maintain the convenience of not rotating crops, or taking other less dangerous measures to reduce pest problems, is unconscionable.
A coalition, including the United Farm Workers, has already sued the state over its use of methyl iodide. The city of Watsonville has also passed a resolution against it. Now a group of concerned citizens is organizing for a countywide resolution against methyl iodide, urging the governor to remove it from the market. This item will be discussed at the Nov. 8 meeting of the Board of Supervisors.
Steve Schnaar is a member of SCAMeI: Santa Cruz Against Methyl Iodide.