California Approves Toxic Pesticide for Strawberries

In a move strongly criticized by environmental groups and scientific experts on chemical pollution, California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation has approved the use of a chemical known to cause cancer, brain damage, and other diseases in people who handle it.  The pesticide methyl iodide may soon be sprayed on strawberry fields across the state of California, which supplies 90% of the strawberries grown in the United States.  In an effort to keep this from happening, environmental and health groups like Pesticide Action Network North America are urging that California governor-elect Jerry Brown pledge to reverse the decision on methyl iodide as soon as he takes office on January 3. 

California’s strawberry industry isn’t new to controversy over pesticides.  For decades industrial-scale strawberry growers in California have sprayed their crops with methyl bromide—a chemical which contributes to depletion of the planet’s protective ozone layer.  Methyl iodide is an alternative pesticide that agricultural companies have proposed as a replacement for methyl bromide.  But while methyl iodide does not deplete the ozone layer, it is even more dangerous to human health than methyl bromide.  Farm workers who harvest or handle strawberries, and people in communities located near strawberry fields, are at particularly high risk when it is used. 

“The science on this chemical speaks for itself,” says the Pesticide Action Network.  “Methyl iodide is a known carcinogen, neurotoxin and thyroid toxicant.”  In 2007 six Nobel Prize-winning scientists spoke against approving use of the chemical at a federal level, but were overruled the next year by the George W. Bush administration.  In 2008 the Bush Environmental Protection Agency approved the practice of using methyl iodide as a soil fumigant.

After that federal decision, individual states had to decide whether they would allow the chemical’s use in their fields.  This prompted the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) in California to open a public comment period on the issue.  The DPR received 53,000 comments from Californians—most of which, according the Pesticide Action Network, opposed the idea of approving methyl iodide.  Meanwhile California’s industrial strawberry growing industry and a Japan-based company that makes methyl iodide lobbied hard for the chemical’s approval. 

Last week those in favor of the chemical won their case, and the DPR gave permission for methyl iodide to be used on strawberry fields.  “Scientific warnings were no match for an intense lobbying effort…and a full-court press by the state’s powerful $2 billion per year strawberry-growing industry,” said the online activist group in an email. 

Now environmental groups hope a sustained public outcry can persuade California’s elected officials to put the breaks on methyl iodide before it reaches the country’s most important strawberry fields.  When incoming governor Jerry Brown—who also served as governor of California from 1975 to 1983—takes office he could order a moratorium on the use of methyl iodide.  An email from expressed hope that Brown might act to stop the use of this chemical, because Brown “has a solid environmental track record.” 

When used by industrial strawberry growers, methyl iodide is applied to fields to sterilize the soil and kill off weeds and disease organisms before strawberries are planted.  Pesticides formerly used to grow strawberries, like methyl bromide, are used in the same way.  While small-scale organic strawberry growers produce this popular fruit without pesticides, no method for raising the crop on an industrial scale without soil sterilization has caught on in the United States.  The California Strawberry Commission, a group with concerns about the impacts of pesticides on those who handle strawberries, is investigating ways the fruit might be grown on a large scale without use of toxic chemicals like methyl iodide.    

Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus

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