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Kristin Schafer's picture

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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