Toxic Strawberry Fields Forever?

Court to rule on controversial pesticide used on California’s berry crops.
There's nothing sweet about the pesticide approved to treat these berries. (Photo: Datacraft Co Ltd/Getty Images)
Jan 10, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

On Thursday a California state judge will hear (possibly the only) testimony over the controversial fumigant methyl iodide.

The pesticide, made by Japan-based Arysta LifeScience, was approved for use on California’s high-value strawberry crop in December 2010, but serious concerns over exposure to farmworkers, neighboring communities and groundwater contamination have dogged the chemical since it was introduced as an alternative to methyl bromide, which is supposedly being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. (Tom Philpott writes an excellent piece on the fumigant’s long history over at Mother Jones.)

So worrisome is the pesticide, Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance promptly filed a lawsuit on behalf of groups like the Pesticide Action Network North America, United Farmworkers of America and others. The lawsuit challenges the pesticide’s approval for use, claiming methyl iodide violates the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Birth Defects Prevention Act and the Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act.

While the fumigant is approved by the EPA, both Washington and New York states have prohibited its use, and more than 50 eminent scientists, including five Nobel laureates in chemistry, have gone on record opposing it, saying “use of this chemical in agriculture will guarantee substantial releases to air, surface waters, and groundwater, and will result in exposures for many people.”

Adding to the controversy are stinging allegations that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation ignored specific scientific warnings about the dangers of methyl iodide, and cherry-picked data to support its application. In 2010, California grew more than 2 billion pounds of strawberries, worth an estimated $2.1 billion.

“The Department of Pesticide Regulation failed to uphold the science or create a thorough review process,” says Paul Towers, spokesman for the Pesticide Action Network. “They took a mix-and-match approach to methyl iodide and hopefully this trial will bring those errors to light.”

Not only will the trial determine future use of methyl iodide in California, but it will also likely have bearing on who will be tapped as chief pesticide regulator at the department, which has been without a chief since Mary-Ann Warmerdam stepped down as director in March 2011.

But despite the high-profile case, the California Health Report says only six California growers have actually applied methyl iodide, and Arysta LifeScience paid for two of those fumigations.

“The political heat is too much for growers, especially those with recognizable labels,” Liz Elwood Ponce, a nursery owner in Redding tells the California Health Report. “The people who oppose this particular chemical are really loud and effective. If no one said anything, I think the chemical would be used more widely. But the objection has pretty much paralyzed the growers into no action.”

Whether that vocal opposition will sway Judge Frank Roesch as he presides over Thursday’s hearing is yet to be determined.