This Midas had no golden touch

March 28, 2012

Controversial chemical pulled from the market by its maker

By Robin Urevich
California Health Report

Methyl iodide, one of the most controversial pesticides ever sold in California, was quietly removed from the market last week.

Arysta Lifescience Corporation, based in Tokyo, abruptly ended its decade long, multi-million dollar push, first to register and later to market methyl iodide, which it sold under the trade name Midas. It was designed to be applied as a soil fumigant to kill bugs before crops were planted.

The company issued a terse news release saying its decision was “based on its economic viability in the US market.”

But the product hardly lived up to its name. It not only failed to produce a fortune for the company, growers weren’t buying the stuff at all.

Although originally developed as an alternative to methyl bromide, another chemical with a troubled reputation, methyl iodide ran into huge problems of its own. It was opposed from the beginning by environmentalists and even some growers. Its approval here in 2010 was shrouded in controversy because regulators gave it the green light after overruling the recommendation of their own toxicologists and a panel of scientists appointed to review their work.

In California, Arysta’s biggest potential market, just six growers applied the pesticide on less than 15 acres since regulators approved methyl iodide in December 2010.

Liz Elwood Ponce, co-owner of Lassen Canyon Nursery in Redding hasn’t used the chemical. Still she said she was saddened by the news.

“There is nothing on the horizon that looks like a substitute for it,” Ponce said.

But a spokesman for Pesticide Action Network North America said he was thrilled.

“Scientific integrity outweighed the pesticide industry,” Paul Towers said. “They saw the writing on the wall that science would prevail.”

Arysta officials were unavailable to comment, but the company appeared eager to put the whole matter to rest.

A day after Arysta announced it would no longer sell methyl iodide, the company sought to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Pesticide Action Network and other environmental and farm worker advocates challenging the state’s decision to approve use of the chemical in California.

But Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch shared his thinking on the case anyway. State regulators made big mistakes in approving methyl iodide, Roesch said. The judge said if he did issue a ruling it would be for the environmentalists.

The state Department of Pesticide Regulation did not consider alternatives to registering the chemical, Roesch said, and didn’t base its decision on sound science, as the law requires.

Arysta attorney Stanley Landfair argued the case was moot. He said his client had given the plaintiffs exactly what they wanted: Arysta asked state regulators to remove the chemical from California’s list of approved agricultural chemicals, and they had done so.

Deputy Attorney General Cecilia Dennis, representing the Department of Pesticide Regulation, said her client also wanted the case dismissed.

A ruling could have implications beyond the methyl iodide case. It could force regulators to more fully and publicly vet alternatives to approving pesticides in the future.

Democratic State Assemblyman Bill Monning, who has opposed methyl iodide, said he was interested in a ruling from the bench.

“[Otherwise] there would be nothing to prevent them [Arysta] from trying to reintroduce it[methyl iodide],” he said.

Roesch said he wasn’t sure the case was moot, and scheduled a May 1 hearing to consider the issue.

The struggle over methyl iodide goes back to the early 1990s when now-retired UC Riverside Professor Jim Sims first developed it as a soil fumigant.

At the time, the ag industry’s deadliest weapon against soil borne pests and weeds, methyl bromide, was found to be depleting the ozone. Later, an international climate change treaty known as the Montreal Protocol called for the almost total ban of methyl bromide by 2015.

Like methyl bromide, methyl iodide is used to sterilize soils before crops like strawberries, tomatoes and fruit trees are planted.

Methyl iodide has proven about as effective as methyl bromide, but it doesn’t harm the earth’s ozone layer.

“I thought, I’m going to be the savior of agriculture,” Sims said.

In fact, some farm trade groups opposed him, he said. They wanted to stick with methyl bromide and unsuccessfully invested in efforts to prove it wasn’t an ozone depleter.

Sims and two colleagues patented their discovery and Arysta, licensed the patent from the University of California.

Sims declined to discuss how much he earned from royalties, but he said it amounted to little more than beer money.

Arysta’s ambitions were clearly bigger.

The company hired a battery of prominent lobbyists, spending nearly $600,000 from 2003 to mid-2011 to deliver its message to the EPA, Congress and the US Department of Agriculture.

Year after year, Arysta officials showed up at Montreal Protocol meetings, from Beijing to Montreal to Burkina Faso, along with other industry representatives and interested parties.

In California, Arysta hired Jim Wells, a former director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, to shepherd its methyl iodide application through regulatory hoops at the agency. Wells’ business partner, prominent Sacramento attorney and lobbyist George Soares, involved his firm Kahn Soares and Conway in talking up methyl iodide to California officials, according to state lobbying disclosures.

The company poured money into studying its product and testing it in the field.

The US Environmental Protection Agency granted methyl iodide conditional approval in 2007, and a full okay the next year. In California, one of the few states that has its own, parallel system for approving farm chemicals, state scientists and an independent panel recommended against it.

But in the final days of the administration of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Department of Pesticide Regulation overruled its experts and approved the product. The approval came with conditions on its use that officials said were among the strictest in history.

UCLA professor John Froines, who chaired the peer review committee, said “science was subverted” in the state’s decision to approve methyl iodide.

“I would not want my family, my friends or anyone else to live or work or go to school near fields where this methyl iodide will be used,” Froines said in testimony before a state assembly hearing in Sacramento last April, where he described the chemical’s properties that are known to cause cancer and damage nervous systems. “You had the best science you could have had and the fact that it was ignored is devastating.”

The California decision enraged dozens of scientists and environmentalists and frightened farm workers, and those who live near agricultural land.

Lawyers for Earthjustice filed the PANNA lawsuit within weeks of the decision.

“Breathing even small amounts [of methyl iodide] causes slurred speech, vomiting, fetal miscarriage, and permanent damage to the lungs, liver, kidneys, and central nervous system,” wrote attorneys in their complaint. “Direct skin exposure causes burns. And methyl iodide causes cancer…”

Protests, hearings, teach-ins and email campaigns followed.
Last December, several growers said they feared pickets or even boycotts if they fumigated with methyl iodide.

The Monterey and Santa Cruz county boards of supervisors called on the governor to reconsider the methyl iodide decision.

Brown didn’t act, but he recently appointed former organic grower Brian Leahy to head the Department of Pesticide Regulation, perhaps signaling a greater interest in exploring non-chemical alternatives to pesticides and fumigants

UC Davis plant sciences professor, Steven Fennimore, who is working to develop such alternatives on California’s Central Coast, said he’s not happy with methyl iodide’s disappearance,

“It removes one big potential tool from the tool box,” Fennimore said.

But he hopes that means support for his work will grow.

Monning, whose district includes the state’s richest strawberry growing regions, predicted it will.

Monning said he’s convened a group of venture capitalists and growers to consider incentives for innovation in more sustainable agriculture.

This year’s state budget includes $400,000 to research non-chemical fumigants.

DPR also recently announced a half-million dollar partnership with the California Strawberry Commission to experiment with fumigant-free growing.

And Towers said his group wants to include provisions in the 2012 federal farm bill that would support chemical-free agriculture.

Still, most work on alternatives to chemicals isn’t well funded and is in its early stages.

Fennimore points to additional fallout from methyl iodide’s exit from the scene.

“It’s probably going to mean methyl bromide will be justified for some time,” he said.

Methyl bromide is not only an ozone depleter, but environmentalists consider it powerfully toxic, and potentially harmful to workers and communities. .

It’s unclear whether California growers could convince US and international authorities to allow them to extend its use.

But California Strawberry Commission spokeswoman Carolyn O’Donnell said her group and others are currently talking with EPA about the issue.

That promises to be another source of conflict between environmentalists and growers, and could set the two sides up for another protracted battle.

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