Teargassing Strawberry Farms Is About to Be Less Dangerous

But critics of the new pesticide rules say that farmworker communities still aren't being adequately protected.

(Photo: Katherine Krull/Getty Images)

Jan 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Just south of Santa Barbara, California, along a section of Highway 101 where the median is particularly wide, there’s a patch of farmland that sits in between the north and southbound lanes. The highway hugs the Pacific here, and the plot, where strawberries are grown, has what must be a million-dollar view. It’s a strange, idyllic spot, but it’s probably a good thing curious drivers can’t stop by to hang out for a bit: The California strawberry industry, which produces more than 80 percent of the U.S. crop, is a chemical-heavy game, with many farmers using a World War I–era, tear gas–like agent to kill off the pests and bacteria that can decimate crops.

Yesterday, the state announced new regulations for the most commonly used pesticide on berry farms, chloropicrin, which are stricter than those required by the Environmental Protection Agency. The new rules were designed to reduce instances of people being exposed to the gas, which can drift away from the fields being treated, falling on houses or schools. There have been hundreds of such instances, resulting in people suffering from eye irritation, respiratory difficulties, skin problems, and headaches after inhaling the chemical.

California farmers sprayed 9 million pounds of chloropicrin in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Fumigating the state’s 40,000 acres of strawberry fields to kill off everything in the soil before planting is the primary use for the chemical, accounting for 70 percent of the chloropicrin used in California. Use of the fumigant has spiked in recent years as another, more powerful chemical, methyl bromide, was phased out per a multinational ban passed in 2005. Its environmental baggage is more systemic: The chemical eats at the ozone layer.

The new regulations limit the number of acres that can be fumigated at a time, and increases the buffer zone between the fields being treated and other non-ag human activity. The regulations are somewhat more lax for growers who use the most advanced tarps to cover plots after the chemical is injected into the soil, which in theory holds the gas in place.

“They are steps in the right direction, but they don’t go far enough,” said Paul Towers, a spokesperson for Pesticide Action Network.

“Our concerns remain, as they have since the Department of Pesticide Regulation began its review two years ago, that farmworker communities—especially children—face the brunt of pesticide drift concerns from what is a known carcinogen,” he added. A 2014 report published by the California Department of Public Health found that chloropicrin was the most common pesticide used in close proximity to public schools: In 2010, more than 150,000 pounds were applied within a quarter mile of a school in the 15 counties the study examined.

In a story announcing the new regulations, The Associated Press wrote that, “California farmers fear that tighter restrictions will increase the costs of their fruits and vegetables, potentially driving the market out of state or the country.” Towers countered that prices have not gone up significantly in the last decade, because methyl bromide began to be phased out in 2005. Indeed, U.S. Department of Agriculture stats show that retail prices dropped between 2007 and 2012.

According to Towers, the regulations are “built upon the premise the schoolchildren, teachers, and farmworkers that are routinely exposed to chloropicrin only experience acute exposures” and doesn’t account for the ongoing effects, which can be far more severe—and potentially deadly—than eye irritation.