Killer Strawberries Coming to a Supermarket Near You

Californians eating locally grown strawberries or residents driving by fields – on their way to work, school or family functions – may soon be exposed to a toxic carcinogen called methyl iodide, a pesticide that can be sprayed on strawberry fields to kill destructive insects and fungi.

The problem with the use of methyl iodide, according to Tia Lebherz is, “It causes cancer and late term miscarriages.  When applied it is supposed to be contained in the soil by tarps, but in real world conditions, with uncertain weather and possible human error, there is a definite risk of it seeping out and poisoning farmers, farm workers and nearby communities.”

Lebherz has been a volunteer for nine months as a campaign organizer assistant for the Safe Strawberry Campaign (SSC) and explained this to attendees at the recent workshop called “Strawberry Fields Forever: Pesticides and Environmental Injustice in California.”

The SSC is a collaborated effort founded by four organizations – Californians for Pesticide Reform, Center for Environmental Health, Pesticide Watch Education Fund and Pesticide Action Network North America.

THE RISK

“Methyl iodide becomes a gas when applied and can easily drift from fields onto nearby workers, homes and schools,” according to the Safe Strawberry Campaign’s informational flier. The Environmental Protection Agency’s website states that inhalation of methyl iodide can cause nausea, vomiting, vertigo, ataxia, slurred speech, drowsiness, skin blistering and eye irritation.

While methyl iodide can be used on other agricultural crops, it’s expected use in California will be primarily on strawberries, according to the SSC. Tests have already found dangerous levels of the chemical in ground water of Florida where it is used on tomatoes, peppers and eggplant crops.

Devika Ghai, who also informed attendees at the workshop about the local dilemma, said, “California is the largest producer of strawberries in the United States. So even though we’re not farmers, we think it’s important to know what is going on around us because we are the consumers.” Ghai is Partners Program coordinator at Pesticide Action Network North America.

At last week’s Organic Food Expo at Cal State Fullerton, student Elaine Long said, “I don’t want to have that toxin-burden accumulating in my body.” Long is president of the Environmental Studies Student Association.

Long further felt “states should use cautionary principle. If it’s a known harmful chemical to humans, then don’t do it. Be smart. Keep it simple.”

THE SCIENCE
Previously, a chemical called methyl bromide was used by some farmers to fumigate their fields, Ghai said. However, methyl bromide was depleting the ozone and was scheduled to phase out in 2011.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) commissioned the Scientific Review Committee to evaluate the chemical methyl iodide as a possible alternative. According to Ghai, the DPR basically ignored the science on methyl iodide.

At the end of their study, the 50 scientists issued a letter recommending the fumigant absolutely not be used. Dr. John Froines, chair of the Scientific Review Committee and UCLA professor of environmental health, said in a public statement that methyl iodide was without a question one of the most toxic chemicals on Earth.

According to the SSC, methyl iodide contaminates ground water used by local municipalities and is linked to cancers, late-term miscarriages and neurological problems.

“It’s not an ozone depletor but it is unsafe for humans. Methyl iodide is so reliably carcinogenic, it is used in laboratories to create cancer cells” according to Lebherz.

THE MONEY
Originally, it seemed the California legislature was going to heed the methyl iodide warnings. However, in December 2010, during the “eleventh hour” of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial term, things changed.

According to the SSC, Arysta LifeScience is the largest, privately held agro-chemical company in the world and a manufacturer of methyl iodide.

“The Department of Pesticide Regulation basically said to its own Scientific Review Committee, ‘Thanks for all of the hard work, but we’re going to register methyl iodide anyway.’ So this enormous scientific report was completely ignored,’” Ghai said.

According to the SCC, “California officials bowed to pressure from and approved the pesticide, ignoring recommendations of their own scientists and the findings of an independent scientific review committee.”

As a result, farmers were allowed to apply for permits for the use of methyl iodide this year. The first application for use of the pesticide was filed just two weeks ago but was denied, according to Lebherz, because it was too close to the “buffer zone” established around schools and playgrounds.

“We’d like to think that science leads us in these decisions, but unfortunately corporate pressure trumps science,” Lebherz said at the workshop.

THE DEBATE
Ghai further explained during the “Strawberry Fields Forever” workshop that methyl iodide will be pumped into the soil at rates of up to 100 pounds an acre when it is used. In addition to possibly contaminating the ground water, Ghai said that methyl iodide could also drift into the air.

Lebherz followed up with, “It is the front-line communities that will bear the burden of this toxic chemical.” After this statement and realization, attendees of the workshop were asked to break into groups and brainstorm.

Lebherz and Ghai asked for ideas on what steps should be taken next and who should be contacted or informed about methyl iodide, since the attempt to stop the use of the toxin at a state level had not been successful.

Brendan Park suggested involving city utility companies in the fight against its use since they would be the ones responsible for removing the pesticide once it leaked into drinking water sources. Park is a water treatment plant operator in Riverside.

Cyrstal Peart thought the campaign should make residents near strawberry field more aware of the possible use of methyl iodide, especially if it is an affluent neighborhood. “Higher-income areas get what they want faster, so we should get them concerned.”

THE FARMERS
According to the SCC, farmers can successfully grow strawberries and many other crops by using ecological practices such as crop rotation and composting. They believe that many growers want to reduce their reliance on pesticides.

One of SSC’s hopes is that someday the state will focus their efforts on green agriculture. “If we don’t have institutional support and funding, farmers have the burden of finding alternatives. The transition off of fumigants (like methyl iodide) could and should benefit California’s farmers and agricultural economy, but for that we need to re-think our policies” said Ghai.

Attempts to discuss the issue with two local strawberry farmers – who have fields in Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, Cerritos, Irvine, Romoland and Tustin –  were unsuccessful.

According to Jonathan Duffy Davis, an Arboretum biologist and organic gardener, “Strawberries are a heavily sprayed crop. It is for this reason that they would be a good choice to purchase organically or to grow at home.”

“If you’re going to choose to go organic, that would be the crop to do it with,” Davis said. “If plants are performing well, the home gardener can expect about a quart of strawberries a year from each plant.”

THE ALTERNATIVES
“It’s simply the fact that there are alternatives,” is what has frustrated Long the most. As someone who studies locally grown foods, she is aware of several organic ways farmers can grow their crops without the use of harmful chemicals.

“There are simple things like using biodegradable soap,” Long said, referring to how some gardeners and farmers combine dish soap and water to spray on their plants and keep bugs at bay. She further felt that “the two industries could sustain each other. It would be good business between the grower and the producer of the soap.”

Long also said many farmers use “companion plants” that attract bugs away from their cash crop. She said teas created from hot peppers, cinnamon, lime and olive oil can be applied to plants, which will bind to insects and burn them off.

Long herself just recently found out about the plans to use methyl iodide on strawberries and sent a public comment to the EPA. She expressed her concern by telling them, “Super pesticides that are known toxins and harmful to our health really shouldn’t be put on our food.”

THE CAMPAIGN
The last date for public debate and comment on this issue is Friday, April 29. To find out more on methyl iodide or ways to participate in the Safe Strawberry Campaign – such as signing a petition telling the EPA to ban methyl iodide, sending comments to Gov. Jerry Brown or getting local grocery stores to sign the Safe Strawberry pledge  – go to SafeStrawberry.org.

About Arianne Custer