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Strawberry Pesticide Threatens Green Farming in California

Farm & Farmworker Advocates Compare Methyl Iodide to Toxic Legacy of Erin Brockovich Chemical; Call on State to Support Safe Alternatives


By: Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. Feb. 22, 2011 – Earlier today, farm and farmworker leaders urged the state to support healthy and green farming without the use of methyl iodide, a pesticide that causes cancer, late-term miscarriages and contaminates groundwater. Hours before a legislative hearing on the topic, Assemblymember Bill Monning, farmers and farmworker advocates held a news conference to call on state agencies to prioritize and coordinate funding for safe, chemical-free alternatives to methyl iodide and other dangerous soil fumigants. The message was delivered on the same day that Erin Brockovich and state leaders urged action to clean up and protect public drinking water from another water contaminant.

The Assembly Health and Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committees plan to hold a joint oversight hearing on how the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) ignored science and rushed to approve methyl iodide late last year. The hearing will be at 1:30 pm today in State Capitol Room 4202.

"State government has a unique opportunity to set California on the right course by harnessing the power of agriculture and green jobs," said Bob McFarland, President of the California State Grange. "Investing in healthy children and healthy farms will pay dividends for years to come."

Although industry and academic institutions have had 24 years to develop safe alternatives to the phase out of methyl bromide—a fumigant or gaseous pesticide injected into the soil to sterilize it before planting—the drop-in pesticide substitute methyl iodide was approved for use in California last December. Farmers and advocates cite the need for the state to prioritize and support research into safe alternatives to hazardous fumigant pesticides such as methyl iodide and methyl bromide. The state could channel existing federal Farm Bill funding (e.g., Specialty Crop Block Grants and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program resources) to support research, extension and direct support for farmers who want to transition away from the use of dangerous fumigant pesticides.

"The writing has been on the wall since the late 1980s that we needed to find safe alternatives to fumigant pesticides, but industry and the state have been dragging their heels," said Paul Towers, State Director of Pesticide Watch Education Fund. "California needs to prioritize green agricultural jobs immediately by first not approving new, toxic pesticides. Then we can help farmers get out of the pesticide trap by funding programs to help them transition to proven greener growing methods and funding research into safe alternatives."

In December, despite concern expressed by dozens of scientists, including six Nobel Laureates in chemistry, and over 50,000 Californians, Department of Pesticide Regulation rushed to approve the cancer-causing strawberry pesticide methyl iodide. Since then, several farmworker advocacy organizations have filed suit against DPR for violating the Birth Defects Prevention Act and other laws in approving methyl iodide, and an increasing number of the state's largest strawberry growers, including California Giant and Well-Pict of Watsonville, have pledged publicly not to use the chemical, citing public concern and existing alternatives.

"Farmworkers are the backbone of California's vibrant farming economy," said Reverend Deacon Sal Alvarez, vice-president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. "Methyl iodide threatens to hurt the very communities working to put healthy food on our tables."

Early evidence from Florida, one of the few states where the chemical has been approved, indicates that methyl iodide poses threats to neighboring air and groundwater and thus farming communities. In research conducted by the chemical manufacturer, Arysta, levels of breakdown of methyl iodide in water and air exceeded those deemed safe for children. The Central Coast Regional Water Resources Control Board in California has also expressed concern about potential groundwater contamination.

Just before farm and farmworker advocates discussed the dangers of methyl iodide today, Erin Brockovich raised concerns about contaminating California's public waters. Brockovich remains the public voice on the dangers of chromium 6 since she led successful litigation against Pacific Gas & Electric in the 1990s. In California, the dangers of chromium 6 and its contamination of public water came to light again last year when a plume from PG&E's contamination was found to be expanding below a community in Riverside County, in addition to levels of concern in San Jose, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

"We've learned the lesson over and over that it's much more costly to clean up water contamination after public health has already been compromised, rather than to prevent contamination to begin with," said Martha Guzman, Legislative Advocate for California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. "We should learn from the tragic examples of chromium 6 and 1,2,3-TCP and not allow the use of methyl iodide in California."

Despite claims that it will not be possible to grow strawberries without methyl iodide, organic growers across the state do so successfully every year. Alternative methods include crop rotation, steam, solarization and mustard seeds. A study released last September from Washington State University showed that organic farms produced more flavorful and nutritious strawberries while leaving the soil healthier and more genetically diverse than conventional strawberry farms (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-09/wsu-sfc082510.php).

Organic agriculture is an economic engine in California, with over 3,500 organic farms and 150,000 acres in organic production. 117 farms in California grow a majority of the country's organic strawberries, with over $43 million in sales, which means a lot for the California economy. California was an early leader in green farming opportunities and organic agriculture, but now lags behind when it comes to policy and research support for organics. Chemicals like methyl iodide place a sustainable and organic agricultural economy in further jeopardy and drive up health costs.

"Organic, sustainable farming methods are proven to be more profitable than conventional farming in addition to creating jobs and enhancing the environment. While this toxic compound was approved in the final gasp of the last administration, I would expect that any administration that looks to the future would reject the short term profits of a single pesticide company in favor of policies that create farm jobs, grow healthy food, and preserve and restore the environment for the great State of California," added Craig Wichner, Managing Director of Farmland LP, a private investment fund that acquires conventional farmland and adds value by converting it to organic, sustainable farmland.


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