Farmers Continue Using Chemical Slated for Phase-Out
FRESNO, Calif. Neil Nagata knows his strawberries, especially the fruit's proclivity to pests and infections.
That's why he left his 160-acre (65-hectare) farm in San Diego County in November and traveled to Prague, Czech Republic, to defend the use of methyl bromide to scientists and environmentalists.
The pesticide has been used for decades to sterilize soil and clear it of any fungus, weeds, worms or bacteria that could threaten crops.
But it was slated for a worldwide ban in 2005 under the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to reduce the use of substances that deplete the earth's protective ozone layer.
Farmers like Nagata argued a delay was needed to give the multibillion dollar agriculture industry time to phase out the pesticide's use.
Americans won international approval to continue using the chemical into 2006 -- which environmentalists, advocates and workers denounced as a dangerous step back.
But in California, farmers are looking for alternatives.
Roger Wasson, head of California's Strawberry Commission, said that about 30 percent of California's strawberries were grown without methyl bromide in 2003. He estimates that this year the number will be up to 40 percent.
Officials at California's Department of Pesticide Regulation said the state also strengthened its methyl bromide regulations by announcing new rules that determine the maximum amount of the chemical that can remain in the air weeks after application.
"Activists who want to see reductions in the use of methyl bromide should look to our regulations as a model for the nation," said Glenn Brank, the department's spokesman.
But environmental and worker advocate groups, the Environmental Defense Fund and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, sued the state's pesticide regulators Dec. 1, alleging they ignored recommendations from other government scientists to set a higher standard.
When it comes to a pesticide like methyl bromide, the safest route is to avoid it, they said.
"People all over the world are using effective alternatives," said Margaret Reeves, staff scientist with the international group Pesticide Action Network.
In Prague, ozone experts and representatives from 188 countries that signed the treaty agreed to let the United States use 10,472 tons of the pesticide next year, and about 7,641 in 2006 -- less than the United States asked for, but more than it used in 2003, when consumption was down to 7,446 tons, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
California farmers said the exemptions were needed to help the industry transition into alternatives without losing its ability to produce safe, healthful food.
The fumigant is already applied with care -- injected up to a foot into the soil, which is covered with a tarp to prevent drift, Nagata said.
"It's a wonderful chemical," he said. "I'd love to use it for the next 50 years."
Growers say there is no other single chemical or technique that is as effective in completely sterilizing fields. Other chemicals can add up to a month to the planting process, and require more chemical use later in the season. Organic approaches are more labor intensive and less productive, they said.
But workers with experience handling the chemical worry that any delays in reducing methyl bromide use will have severe consequences for the environment and the people who live and work near the fields.
According to the latest figures available, 31 people suffered acute methyl bromide poisoning between 1997 and 2000. Experts say that number doesn't represent additional cases of people suffering ailments from long-term contact with the chemical.
Source: Associated Press