LOCAL SPIN: Chemistry Lesson
Anti-methyl iodide professor says it’s time for alternatives.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
On the morning the public relations team at Arysta LifeSciences was polishing a release announcing the company was yanking the strawberry fumigant methyl iodide from the U.S. market (a statement most notable for the sheer amount of bullshit contained in so few words), John Froines was riding bikes with his grandkids on the Monterey Bay Rec Trail.
It’s an annual trip for Froines. The chemist and toxicologist has taught and conducted research at the UCLA School of Public Health for 31 years, but when spring break arrives, he, his kid and his grandkids hit the road. They stay in Pacific Grove, they ride bikes, and Froines, a marathoner, runs along the water and thinks.
It’s ironic for a few reasons that Froines was biking, running and thinking in our backyard when Arysta announced it was done with the methyl iodide fight. In Monterey County, strawberries have surpassed lettuce to become the number-one crop, valued at $751 million in 2010.
Conventional growers fought for methyl iodide, the fumigant Arysta manufactures and the state Department of Pesticide Regulation registered in 2010.
“YOU MIGHT EXPECT FROINES TO BE BITTER. INSTEAD, HE SAID HE WAS GRATEFUL.”
The DPR hired Froines to lead a scientific peer review of methyl iodide before the agency approved it. He determined, in the end, that methyl iodide shouldn’t be touched with a 10-foot pole, much less used to fumigate fields anywhere in proximity to human life.
At first, he was willing to agree to its use with restrictions; then DPR ignored its own staff scientists and Froines’ commitee and registered it for use at exposure rates as much as 100 times higher than recommended. The ensuing outcry saw Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance suing Arysta and DPR over that registration.
For his trouble, Arysta sicked its public relations’ team on Froines, and whispered into reporters’ ears about the professor’s “radical” past as a member of the Chicago Seven—something anyone with opposable thumbs and an Internet connection could Google and find out. Arysta neglected to mention, of course, that Froines was acquitted on all charges.
You might expect Froines to be a little bitter. Instead, the morning after the news was announced, Froines said he was grateful to Arysta, and optimistic about the future of California ag.
“I think this is a very good day. I would give credit to Arysta for taking the steps. I don’t know their underlying reasons, but I wish the reason had been their recognition that methyl iodide is a highly toxic chemical,” Froines says. “There is no question the work that the committee and DPR staff did demonstrates the toxicity of this chemical.
“The other thing I realize is, now it’s really, really, really, really important—pardon my reallies—that we get on with finding safe alternatives.”
The ozone-depleting fumigant methyl bromide has to be phased out of use by 2015 because of a treaty. “We have a three-year window to do really creative work on alternatives. It seems the state and DPR needs to make that a priority, and I think that’s relevant to the legal case as well,” he says.
Arysta, of course, said nothing of the sort. There was no great come-to-Jesus moment. Instead, the company stated it was pulling methyl iodide based on its “economic viability.”
Bullshit. Arysta pulled it because Alameda Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch, presiding in the Earthjustice and CRLA case, was going to rule against it and the DPR for botching the registration process. Roesch said so last week, when Arysta’s attorney went before him and said, “All gone, all gone, nothing to see here!” While Arysta has deep pockets to fight the case, Roesch’s ruling would have set a legal precedent that would forever change the way pesticides are registered, making it a much pricier proposition for Arysta’s peers. Roesch still might rule against Arysta and DPR.
Froines has a grant from the Heller Foundation to write a paper about the approval process. In the meantime, he’s content that the peer review committee and a pair of ex-DPR scientists, Lori Lim and Ruby Reed, who left the agency under extreme pressure from their bosses to go along with the program, acted in the best interests of science.
“I think we acted like scientists should. We did great science and didn’t let politics get in the way, and we maintained the integrity of that science,” Froines says. “You can’t have science without integrity.”
With former DPR chief MaryAnn Warmerdam now safely ensconced at a job with Clorox, and veteran organic farmer Brian Leahy settling into his role as DPR’s new chief, maybe science with integrity is more likely to happen in Sacramento.
As for it happening at Arysta’s offices in North Carolina? Don’t hold your breath.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.