The Emerging Strawberry Crisis: Innovate or Else

February 16, 2010

By Paul Towers

Paul Towers

Sitting before a panel of legislators, a Santa Cruz area farmer recently compared the potential fate of California’s strawberry industry to the current state of American automakers. He argued that if agriculture doesn’t innovate, it faces a bumpy road ahead. And, he argued, that the decisions of regulators today will create the roadmap for the future of farming. It’s no easy task–the direction of the state’s agriculture system is at stake.

One set of choices sets us down the road of producing food that continues to poison humans and contaminate our soil, water and air; the other turns a corner to widespread adoption of methods that, though they are more sophisticated and foreign to most conventional growers, produce safe and healthy food for all.

The strawberry industry is at this crossroads. It’s no doubt then that strawberries are big business in California and demand doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Each year, beginning in Santa Cruz and continuing down Highway 1 to Santa Barbara, black tarps are plastered to valleys and hillsides. When the tarps are removed, over 1.8 billion pounds of strawberries from over 32,000 acres are harvested. It’s what’s below those black tarps that is increasingly shaking up the entire industry.

The fields are wrapped in plastic tarp to curb the escape of highly toxic pesticides known as fumigants—chemicals applied as gases to sterilize the soil before planting. Yet the gases invariably escape through drift on to workers in the fields and children and other rural community members while at schools, homes and parks. California agriculture, especially strawberry growers, has become increasingly reliant on these pesticide fumigants in order to produce greater and greater yields.

The latest chemical that conventional strawberry growers want to add to their fumigant toolbox in California is called “methyl iodide,” marketed as the product Midas. It is intended by some to be a replacement for methyl bromide, a chemical banned under international treaty.

The toxicity of the potential new pesticide is well established. Methyl iodide is a tightly regulated laboratory chemical that scientists use to create cancer cells in laboratories. It is a nervous system poison that causes thyroid disease, late-term miscarriages and is listed on California’s Proposition 65 list of “chemicals known to cause cancer.” It also has the potential to contaminate groundwater for decades to come.

Last Thursday, a panel of internationally respected scientists added fuel to the debate about the chemical after months of review, stating, “We have concluded there is little doubt that the compound possesses significant toxicity.” These findings concurred with a letter penned in 2007 by scientists across the country, including five Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, noting they were “astonished” that a chemical posing such high risks to human health would be considered for use in agriculture. California’s own regulatory agencies estimate that workers could be exposed to levels of methyl iodide 3,000 times higher than the “acceptable” dose.

Concern over the potential registration of methyl iodide hasn’t been limited to scientists. In August, Assemblymember Bill Monning (Monterey) and Senator Mark Leno (San Francisco) co-authored a letter signed by 33 state legislators in opposition to the proposed use of this new fumigant in California.

With increased global trade and climate change, California agriculture faces unprecedented challenges. Yet alternatives to pesticide soil fumigation such as crop rotation, soil solarization, use of green manure treatments, and steam treatment of nursery container stock are already available. Groundbreaking research on disease resistant varieties and anaerobic soil disinfestation are coming out of the University of California and show great promise as both safer and easier to use alternatives. Commodity groups, recognizing its importance, are helping to fund this research because of its long-term potential for reducing costs.

Despite the risks posed by methyl iodide and the availability of safe alternatives, many growers feel caught between the ways they know and the uncertainty of new techniques. This reluctance to make changes now sits uneasily with the fact that many in the agriculture industry see the public’s concerns over health as the writing on the wall that the future of farming is one without chemical fumigants. Ultimately, California regulators will help determine one course or the other.

In choosing short-term profits over investing in clear, long-term trends, American automakers bet the farm on the Hummer: let’s hope that farmers don’t make the same mistake.

Paul Towers is the State Director of Pesticide Watch Education Fund and The California Food Project where he works side-by-side with communities to prevent pesticide exposure, support local farming, and build healthier communities.

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