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Berry Battles

news3monningandcochranBill Monning, Jim CochranThe long-running fight to ban methyl iodide takes a new turn

Cancer, late-term miscarriages, thyroid disruption, kidney damage and destruction of the developing brains of children are what’s in store if strawberry farmers begin fumigating their fields with the pesticide methyl iodide, said a panel of experts at a public forum in Salinas on Sept. 29.

The panel included Assemblymember Bill Monning, Dr. Kathy Collins, professor of microbiology at UC Berkeley, Dr. Robert Gould, president of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Jim Cochran, president of Swanton Berry Farm, a Santa Cruz-based organic strawberry grower. It was hosted by a coalition of organizations determined to raise awareness of the public health risks presented by the pesticide, as well as what they say is the state’s negligence in correctly analyzing scientific data they argue clearly illustrates its dangers.

The event, which drew a large crowd, is part of a growing, multi-tiered battle to ban the pesticide in California and, by extension, across the country. “Everyone is watching California right now because, along with Florida, we are the largest strawberry producers in the country,” says Paul Towers with Pesticide Action Network.  With the vast majority of California’s strawberry fields located in the coastal counties, Santa Cruz County and Monterrey County have become epicenters of the fight.

In January, a coalition of environmental groups and the United Farmworkers Union filed a lawsuit for an injunction preventing the use of methyl iodide. Opening hearings are slated to take place this month. Likewise, public pressure has pushed the EPA to reopen public comment at the national level, a first step in considering if the agency will re-open hearings concerning the registration of the chemical. On the community level, a campaign comprised of student groups, community organizations and unions in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties have been increasing public pressure to ban the chemical and search for alternatives.

In September, farm worker groups, environmental organizations and concerned citizens presented the state with a petition of 35,000 signatures of Californians opposed to use of the chemical. Likewise, Towers says, the California Public Employee Retirement System and California State Teachers Retirement System are threatening to pull a collective $2 billion they have invested Arysta LifeScience, the manufacturer of methyl iodide, if the product is not pulled off the shelf.

Another major tactic of community organizations has been to pressure the Monterey and Santa Cruz County Boards’ of Supervisors to draft resolutions that express the communities concerns with methyl iodide and demand that Gov. Jerry Brown, who has the authority to ban the chemical, reconsider the chemical’s registration.

County Supervisor Mark Stone says that process is already underway in Santa Cruz County and that the resolution will be completed this month. “We’re asking that the governor review the science and that the state appropriately takes into consideration the environmental and health risks of methyl iodide,” Stone says. As of now, the lynch pin is getting Brown to reconsider the registration methyl iodide, something he alluded he would do in March, but has yet to fulfill.

The fight to ban methyl iodide began in 2007 when the EPA approved the use of the pesticide as the replacement of methyl bromide, a chemical that 196 nations agreed to ban as part of the Montreal Protocol in the 1980s due to its ozone depleting effects.

Methyl bromide, which is still in use by strawberry growers, is slated to be banned in California by 2014. Although the EPA approved the chemical, California law requires its own investigation concerning the approval of pesticides. An independent team of scientists commissioned by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) and, it was recently revealed through documents obtained through the pending lawsuit, the DPR’s own scientists, all concluded that methyl iodide presents significant heath risks to farmworkers and rural communities.

However, through a last minute emergency registration, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration approved the chemical in December 2010. What constituted the emergency is still a mystery, says Towers, though it illustrates the crux of the problem, which is the DPR failed to adequately review the data, if not blatantly engaged in deceptive behavior by mixing and selecting scientific data to achieve a desired result, as some scientists have accused them of doing.

As it stands now, farmers can currently apply to use methyl iodide, though few have elected to do so.  Thus far, it has only been applied four times in the state, all by farmers in the Central Valley. The fact that no farmers in Santa Cruz or Monterey counties have used the chemical yet points to a second facet of the issue, which Stone says is farmers don’t want to use the pesticide but are faced with a dilemma given the 2014 ban of methyl bromide.

The dilemma points to a need find alternatives to strawberry farming, and the current campaign to ban methyl iodide, if successful, may find itself the catalyst that forces a dramatic change in agricultural techniques. It is a change Jim Cochran, who has been growing organic strawberries in Santa Cruz Country for decades now, says “is not easy, but most certainly, is not insurmountable.”


Photo: Bill Monning, Jim Cochran

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