Strawberry Fields Don’t Have to Be Pesticide-Laden Forever
Over the years, strawberry growers have hopscotched their way through a laundry list of chemical pesticides, each with its own health and environmental concerns, in efforts to maximize yields and protect their popular crops.
Now, with a looming 2016 deadline to comply with environmental protection laws banning methyl bromide—the pesticide farmers relied on for years—California’s strawberry industry is facing major changes.
Which is not to say the industry churning out your favorite summer fruit is in any danger. But to keep up with demand, it’s devoting millions of research dollars to ditching chemical fumigants altogether.
That’s right—the future of the strawberry may be an organic one.
The shift is a result of a long-standing mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency to phase out methyl bromide, which came after the alarming discovery that the much-used pesticide was eating away at the ozone layer. The EPA’s ban went into effect in 2005, but American farmers have dodged the requirement with critical use exemptions for a decade, saying methyl bromide is just too valuable to eliminate until they can find new ways to effectively manage crop loss.
“The industry really grew up around using methyl bromide,” said Carol Shennan, an agroecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It’s the most effective. And it controls a wide range of diseases and weeds, so it’s quite difficult to find a replacement that will do everything methyl bromide did.”
But the EPA is done granting exemptions to American farmers, who produce the world’s largest strawberry crop. After more than a decade of warning, methyl bromide will be prohibited altogether come 2016. While this has promising implications for the environment, change may not be easy.
The good thing is that strawberry growers are prepared, and they have a track record as innovators, said Carolyn O’Donnell, a spokesperson for the California Strawberry Commission, a state government research agency.
“Strawberry farmers are always looking at the next month, the next year, the next 10 years, the next 20 years,” she said. “They were the first to adopt integrated pest management techniques and water-conserving drip irrigation. We’re done with methyl bromide—we’re working toward other solutions.”
Among those solutions, according to O’Donnell, are two main approaches: other pesticides or non-fumigant methods inspired by organic farming.
Right now, the alternative that’s typically used in California—where 88 percent of U.S. strawberries are grown—is other fumigants, most commonly a chemical called chloropicrin, O’Donnell said. Chloropicrin is not without its problems, though. Exposure to the chemical has been linked to health problems such as respiratory damage and eye irritation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though O’Donnell says strict state and country restrictions make the use of chloropicrin safe in California, environmental health activists have concerns.
“These pesticides are incredibly volatile, hazardous, and likely to drift great distances,” said Paul Towers, media director at Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit working toward pesticide alternatives worldwide. “California has recently introduced some restrictions on the proximity of use to people. Those are unfortunate in that they are so minuscule that they have almost no effect.”
In the longer term, O’Donnell says a non-fumigant method called anaerobic soil disinfestation is the most promising option, but the industry has concerns it won’t be feasible on a mass scale in California. Effective in hot climates, the method kills pests that infiltrate strawberry and tomato crops by building a layer in the soil that’s toxic for fungi and pathogens.
“It’s still a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and we’re trying to put the picture together,” said O’Donnell. Several universities and other organizations across California are working in hopes of making non-fumigant methods a possibility in the state.
Other methods used in organic farming—such as injecting crops with hot steam to kill pests—have been tested but may not be feasible owing to costs like demands on fuel and water, according to O’Donnell.
Though some news outlets have described the methyl bromide phase-out as a risk to the crop’s survival, O’Donnell says this is unrealistic. Researchers like Shennan, whose lab is testing fumigant alternatives, are devoted to finding a sustainable and effective solution for the next generation of strawberry growing.
“This is not a big catastrophe. We’ve known this is coming,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve got challenges ahead of us…but I think people will always have their favorite fruit available.”