Strawberry Fields

Are We Doomed to Use Methyl Bromide

The papery star of leaves capping the red fruit might be green, but the California strawberry industry is not. At issue is methyl bromide, the ozone-depleting biocide berry growers use to keep their products looking "farm fresh," and to sterilize coastal soils prior to setting out young plants. The highly toxic gas is listed for worldwide ban this year under the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement aimed at reducing dependency on ozone-depleting chemicals.

But after a decade of success in rolling back global levels of consumption, the California strawberry industry that uses 40 percent of the nation’s methyl bromide (it is also used on Florida tomatoes) convinced the Bush administration to back pedal. It was a victory for the "bromide barons," which include Abermarle, Great Lakes Chemical Corporation, Dead Sea Bromide, Tri-Cal and Sun-Diamond.

In 2003, U.S. consumption of the gas was down to 7,446 tons, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received "critical-use exemptions" from parties to the Montreal Protocol to raise the bar to 10,472 tons for 2005.

"The phase-out was actually working quite well until the U.S. asked for an exemption to both continue production and allow use at 39 percent of the 1991 levels upon which the cutbacks over the past 10 years have been based," says David Doniger, senior attorney and director of climate center policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "But the EPA’s own data showed a total recommended usage of only 31 percent of the baseline in 2003. So we’ve sued the agency on the basis that the exemptions for 2005 don’t conform to the Clean Air Act and Montreal Protocol."

Doniger underscores problems with the EPA’s calculations. "We’re saying that there’s so much puffing that’s gone into figures that things aren’t adding up," he says. "Also in our suit is that the EPA has allowed the big bromide companies to keep producing even though we found that the U.S. has already stockpiled more than the alleged need."

"Methyl bromide is one of the major chemicals still allowed that degrade the ozone layer," says Ray Chavira, a scientist in the EPA’s San Francisco pesticide office. "The re-registration process listing about six alternatives should be complete soon. Then the EPA will focus on a transition to those chemicals, a process that will probably take one to three years."

Rodger Wasson, outgoing president of the California Strawberry Commission, says his industry is actively working for solutions. "We in the strawberry industry have been in full cooperation on the Montreal Protocol process and our growers have funded research to find alternatives," he says. "I"m not sure anyone has done more to find alternatives to methyl bromide. But it’s difficult, complicated and expensive experimenting with these other chemicals and conducting field trials. It’s both a science and an art—not a slam dunk."

The nonprofit commission’s work has come under attack from green groups. R. Juge Gregg of the Environmental Investigation Agency says, "The California Strawberry Commission has known for 13 years that the industry needs to stop using methyl bromide, yet the Commission has relied on Washington lobbying to keep the methyl bromide flowing."

Another debating point is competition in the global market. While parties to the Montreal Protocol established a 2005 ban for developed nations, they settled on 2015 for developing countries. A Congressional Research Service report notes that "of particular concern were consumption allowances for developing countries, some of which compete directly with U.S. produce markets." A Sacramento Bee editorial pointing to Mexico as an emerging competitor echoed that varying timetables amounted to "unilateral disarmament for the California strawberry farmer."

Although the USDA spent more than $172 million from 1993 to 2004 researching alternatives to methyl bromide, the agency says it needs more time to come up with fumigants that are as effective. "We have reduced its U.S. use by 65 percent from 1991 levels and I think that’s quite notable," says Kenneth Vicks of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. "Telone is one of the more promising alternatives, but it’s a known carcinogen and under severe restrictions, so short of quitting growing strawberries, we may not get to a complete phase out for some time."

That said, Wasson estimates that farmers grew 30 percent of the 2003 berry crop without relying on methyl bromide, a figure that should reach 40 percent when the 2004 information is in. A switch to organic production is one reason for the declining dependency.

Susan Kelgley, a senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), thinks the move to organic farming is on target. "We’re trying to help the EPA and USDA talk with sustainable agriculture people who are farming without fumigants," she says. "We need research money for viable alternatives that don’t require toxic substances. If we’re going to put billions into energy bills, why not help our farmers transition away from chemicals and have subsidies go to those who reduce their use of fumigants?"

Larry Eddings, owner of Pacific Gold, which leases 1,000 acres for farming berries and currently has a tenth of that in organic production, says it’s not that easy. "On the conventional side of the berry business, we’re making very little money. I started growing organically eight years ago, and it has worked out pretty well. We grow lovely berries, not the gnarly little things with worm holes I had expected."

But Eddings thinks that methyl bromide is "a whipping boy." He says, "The amount from commercial agriculture that goes into the atmosphere is a very small percentage of the overall amount. Also, there’s very little science that says our practices are doing damage. I know that methyl bromide will eventually go away, but it’s going to be really hard on the strawberry industry."

The methyl bromide phaseout may mean higher prices for strawberries, but as the Sacramento Bee pointed out, "Earth can’t live without its ozone layer."