Kristin Schafer

    Choosing Safer Strawberries: Battle Heats Up Over New Cancer-Causing Pesticide

    Posted December 14th, 2009 by

    There’s nothing quite like a fresh, juicy strawberry. Our family lives near the central coast of California where most of the strawberries in the U.S. are grown, so we enjoy fresh-picked strawberries nearly year round.

    What many people don’t know is that some of the nastiest pesticides are used in strawberry fields. Most non-organic berries are grown in soil that’s been zapped clean with chemicals that kill everything they touch. Fields are covered with huge tarps while pesticides are pumped in and the soil is stripped of all living things before planting. Workers, neighbors and parents sending their kids to school near strawberry fields dread fumigation season.

    The good news is, one of these “biocides” (a chemical called methyl bromide) is finally being phased out – targeted under an international treaty because it also happens to deplete the ozone layer.

    The bad news? The powers-that-be in California are considering a replacement pesticide that’s such a “good” carcinogen it’s often used in cancer experiments in the lab, where scientists deck themselves in protective gear before they handle tiny amounts with extreme caution.

    Fifty of those scientists – including five winners of the Nobel prize – wrote a letter to EPA when the national agency began reviewing the proposed pesticide. They were “astonished” that the chemical – called methyl iodide – would even be considered for use in agricultural fields. “As chemists and physicians…we are concerned that pregnant women and the fetus, children, the elderly, farmworkers, and other people living near application sites would be at serious risk.”

    Bush-era EPA officials ignored the scientists’ letter, and approved methyl iodide (trade name: “Midas”) last year. Now California is deciding whether to allow strawberries, carrots and other state crops to experience the Midas touch. A decision is expected before the end of the year.

    The company that makes the chemical is, of course, pushing for a “yes.” Arysta is an international corporation with a U.S. base in North Carolina. Since strawberry farmers themselves haven’t pressed hard to register the new carcinogen (not surprising, since farmers and workers are on the front lines for cancer and other health effects), the company has set up their own website and faux “grassroots action campaign.”

    Concerned Californians are pushing back, mobilizing to convince their Governor that Midas is a bad idea. A “no” decision could protect the rest of the country as well, since new EPA officials say that if California rejects methyl iodide, the agency will rethink its blessing for use in other states.

    More bad news: cancer isn’t the only risk Midas poses. Exposure is also linked to miscarriages and asthma, and can affect the human nervous system, lungs, liver and kidneys. And exposure in rural communities is almost certain, since when a reactive chemical like methyl iodide is put into the soil, it can sink into groundwater or float into neighboring yards and schools. Doesn’t sound like such a good idea.

    Fortunately, there’s another round of good news too. Berry farming is possible without using Midas or other pesticides. Farmers are growing organic strawberries in California and around the country by building healthy, living soil and managing pests without risky chemicals.

    California activists say calling the Governor really can make a difference. Seems worth the effort if a phone call might help protect workers and rural communities across the country from a powerful new carcinogen plus keep the soil in strawberry fields alive. Choosing organic strawberries at the farmer’s market or in the grocery store will also help. If there’s no market for conventional strawberries, companies like Arysta may just have to find a safer product line. Ladybugs, anyone?

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    6 Comments

    June 3, 2010 at 8:33 pm by Ryan Hammill

    Hi–

    Thanks sooo much for such a clear write-up of the issue–it’s much better than the article in my newspaper. This issue, as soon as I saw the headlines, made my blood boil. Given the numerous stories of used-and-then-canceled pesticides, one would think our regulators would be smart enough not to get involved with a pesticide that is the fumigant equivalent of an atom bomb. I know strawberries can be grown organically–I do it.

    Ryan

    [Reply]

    June 3, 2010 at 3:19 pm by gman

    I hate to say it, but I’m just going to eat what I can get my hands on as far as fruits and veggies. With all the toxins that are pumped into “off the shelf” items, I’m better off taking my chances with produce – just my opinion.
    _________________________________________

    Best to you,
    GBG

    [Reply]

    April 15, 2010 at 10:01 pm by Kathy

    So, if all we have available to us is non-organic strawberries what are our choices in eating this giant of a nutritious fruit? Eliminate them from our diet? Is there a way to clean non-organic strawberries so they are safe to eat by your standards?

    [Reply]

    December 22, 2009 at 12:54 pm by Paula

    Get real!! They fumigate the ground at the nurseries even where organic plants are grown. Many organic farmers use raw dairy manure to fertilize their plants. They often choose ground that is very near or right next to cattle grazing. Definite food safety risks. Remember the spinach incident of 2006??? How many acres of organic farm land in California do you think is available? Conventional farming is much safer in the long run and the quality is much better therefore eliminating the need to farm more acres. Again, I repeat, GET REAL!

    [Reply]

    Kristin Schafer Reply:

    @Paula,

    Thanks for your response Paula. I understand your perception that organic food is somehow less safe, and that shifting to organic production is not realistic.

    Fortunately for all of us, the fact is that organic farms are well regulated and the number of farmers switching to organic continues to grow. Many studies show that organic farms can be just as productive as chemically dependent ones – and in some cases more so. And this with minimal support (so far) from USDA and research institutions around the country. Check out the Organic Farming Research Foundation (www.ofrf.org) for lots more info on this.

    Another resource you might want to take a look at is the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (http://www.healthandenvironment.org/). You’ll see what scientists are saying about how chemicals in our food and everyday products are affecting our health, with strong links to breast cancer, infertility and autism. These concerns are very real indeed. – Kristin

    [Reply]

    Anita Reply:

    @Kristin Thanks so much for checking up on these replies and offering more great facts and resources. Much appreciated!

    [Reply]

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