From SantaCruzSentinel.com, 27 April 2012.
It’s a sad irony that for years growing a healthy strawberry conventionally has required methyl bromide, a chemical so harmful it has been banned by international treaty because it is destroying the Earth’s ozone layer.
Another dose of irony: The soil fumigant at first favored to replace methyl bromide, methyl iodide, is perhaps even more despised, with studies linking it to cancer, birth defects and other maladies, and now it has been yanked from the U.S. market.
So where does that leave strawberry growers? In a very strange place, to be sure. Conventional farmers right now do not have an effective alternative to methyl bromide — some soil-cleansing process or additive that gives farmers the crop protection they need while also ensuring the health of rural communities and farmworkers.
The one bright spot we see now that the alternative has been shelved is that state regulators are moving quickly to speed up research into alternatives.
Brian Leahy, director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, announced Tuesday the creation of a panel of scientists that has until late fall to come up with a five-year action plan. It’s a positive sign the panel will include representatives from California’s $2.3 billion strawberry industry and farmworker advocates, as all parties are going to have to solve this issue together.
The methyl bromide tale is long and complicated.
The chemical is widely used in strawberry production to kill pests and diseases in soil before planting, and, according to state data, Santa Cruz County tops the state in its use. It is highly effective but toxic. In 2005 it was nationally phased out by the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty for eliminating ozone-depleting chemicals.
While berry growers cover the fields with plastic to contain the chemicals, 50-95 percent of the substance eventually dissipates into the atmosphere and depletes the ozone, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The highly regulated chemical is also a potential occupational carcinogen, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Research and government agencies have poured millions of dollars into finding alternatives, but nothing works quite as well for mass-produced strawberries, according to many farmers. Thus, year after year, California berry growers receive exemptions to the protocol and continue using methyl bromide.
Why use it at all? Strawberries grown with alternative fumigants yield up to 35 percent less and none of them control weeds, according to farm groups.
The Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission has been working to solve the problem for years, funneling millions of dollars into research, and has come up with some promising directions, as well as some dead-ends. Researchers have looked at solarization, steaming the soil, even using soil microbes to help strengthen plants.
It’s positive everyone is coming to the table to find a solution, but it’s frustrating that seven years after methyl bromide’s ban we’re still without a solution. It would appear we’re back to square one.