Strawberry production booms in Monterey County– and so does pesticide use.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
While strawberries rose to Monterey County’s number two crop last year, residents living next to the sweet-smelling berry fields reported a higher number of illnesses stemming from the crop’s favored fumigants. Fifty-five people reported symptoms such as watery eyes, sore throats and headaches in three separate applications involving pesticides chloropicrin and methyl bromide in 2007, according to the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. This is compared to two pesticide-related illnesses linked to strawberry field treatments in 2006.
“These incidents are never intentional and they are just accidents,” Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Bob Roach says. “We just happened to have more in that year. I don’t see any common thread or any reason that would explain the increases.”
In Moss Landing, 11 residents said they experienced headaches, a metallic taste in their mouths and sore throats following methyl bromide, chloropicrin and 1,3-dichloropropene applications between Aug. 14 and Oct. 9 last year. A legal battles looms.
On Oct. 16 a family of six in North County complained of irritated eyes and throats after farmers injected chloropicrin into nearby soil. The ag commissioner fined grower Gonzalo Fernandez $2,420 for failing to notify residents of the application, Roach says. The year’s last poisoning occurred Oct. 23 when 38 north Salinas residents in 17 homes reported similar tear gas-like symptoms after a strawberry fumigation.
As more housing developments are built on ag land and growers plant more lucrative strawberries, comparable instances of pesticide drift will likely rise. “You can’t contain [fumigants],” says Susan Kegley, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America. “No matter how much plastic tarping you have over them, they still escape. You just release the demons in Pandora’s box.”
Carolyn O’Donnell, issues and food safety manager for the California Strawberry Commission, says the commission is committed to keeping neighborhoods safe, adding that all applications are subject to the ag commissioner’s approval. “No farmer just willy-nilly sprays the pesticides,” O’Donnell says. “They only use them when they need them.”
Apparently Monterey County growers need them a lot. The county uses the highest volume of fumigants methyl bromide and chloropicrin in the state, according to 2006 California Department of Pesticide Regulation data. About 1.4 million pounds of methyl bromide and 1.2 million pounds of chloropicrin were applied on strawberry fields in 2006– the top two pesticide quantities in the county. Strawberry applications alone accounted for more than 40 percent of the county’s agricultural pesticide use.
Methyl bromide, an odorless gas that can attack human neurological systems, was supposed to be phased out in 2005 because of its ozone-depleting properties. But lobbyists like the strawberry commission have successfully won so-called “critical-use exemptions” from the Montreal Protocol, claiming there are no economically plausible alternatives. Under this loophole, strawberry growers can continue using the fumigant for years to come– though in decreasing amounts– until they find the perfect pest poison.
On June 11 Arysta LifeScience North America Corp. applied for research authorization to test MIDAS, a methyl bromide alternative, in California. Chemically known as methyl iodide, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October 2007 gave the controversial carcinogen a one-year approval, flying in the face of scientific opposition. Methyl iodide can’t be applied wholesale in California until the Department of Pesticide Regulation does a peer-reviewed risk assessment. As for the 10 research trials Arysta is requesting, DPR spokesman Glenn Brank says the application is still pending and no location has been selected.
Kegley hopes the state doesn’t register methyl iodide because it causes cancer and contaminates groundwater. “It’s one of those things that is even worse than what it is replacing,” she says.
While growers search for a new weed and disease silver bullet, strawberry acreage and values are steadily growing. Local strawberries had a gross value of $605 million in 2007, a 38 percent increase over 2006, according to the recently released Monterey County Crop Report. Farmers planted 9,630 acres of strawberries, of which 1,151 acres, or about 12 percent, were certified organic, Roach says.
California strawberries are now in peak harvest. Fumigation season will follow. A lawsuit triggered by the Moss Landing pesticide permit is seeking better protections to prevent residents from being exposed to the highly toxic fumigants. The lawsuit, which was filed by Salinas’ California Rural Legal Assistance office, challenges DPR’s risk assessment and mitigation measures for chloropicrin and 1,3-dichloropropene, respectively.
Brank declined to comment on the lawsuit but did say the state is in the process of doing a new risk assessment for chloropicrin.
In addition, the lawsuit says DPR and Ag Commissioner Eric Lauritzen failed to effectively enforce conditions of the pesticide permit, which was given to Steven Rodoni of Springfield Farms after unsuccessful challenges by CRLA. According to the lawsuit, southern winds and atmospheric inversion, which trapped the chemicals close to the ground, carried the pesticides directly into the Moss Landing neighborhood bordered by Potrero Road. A day after a fumigation on Oct. 3, wind blew part of the tarp off the field, even though the permit required the cover to remain for five days.
“These government agencies shouldn’t be able to impose these type of toxic chemicals on the community,” says CRLA attorney Jonathan Gettleman.
Roach says weather conditions were safe for the application. As for the tarp, he says the air was tested after the tarp blew off and they couldn’t detect any chemicals. Gettleman hopes to take the case to trial in the fall.