Workers pick strawberries near Camarillo. In Ventura County, strawberries… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
A years-long environmental battle ended abruptly when the company producing a fumigant for strawberries and other crops yanked it from U.S. distribution, bringing relief to activists and raising concern among growers.
Methyl iodide, meant to replace an ozone-depleting fumigant being phased out by an international treaty, was believed to have little effect on air quality. But some scientists say it can cause cancer, brain damage and miscarriages among workers who handle it and can be a threat to ground water.
In California, which produces 90% of the nation's strawberries, environmental advocates reacted enthusiastically Wednesday to the announcement by Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience Inc.
"This way is more powerful than a court victory. It's a concession. It's them walking," said Greg Loarie, lead attorney in a lawsuit attacking the process California used to approve the chemical in 2010.
"Today I'm really happy," said 19-year-old Gabriela Rincon, who joined marches against the chemical and told her parents, both pickers in the Salinas area, about the risk. "It feels like someone finally listened to us about something really important."
An Arysta spokeswoman said the decision late Tuesday to abandon U.S. production and marketing of the company's trademarked Midas fumigant was financial. Arysta will continue to market the chemical outside the U.S.
In 2011, the first full year it was available as a replacement for methyl bromide, only one strawberry grower used it, on a small plot outside Santa Maria, according to the California Strawberry Commission.
Several pepper farmers in the Central Valley also reportedly applied the chemical. Its chilly reception among growers contrasted sharply with the urgency expressed by state officials in 2010, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deemed its approval an "emergency."
For some growers, the legal risk of using a compound that had generated intense notoriety proved too great.
"Growers want to grow, not spend time on litigation," said John Krist, chief executive of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.
Krist said that in Ventura County, where strawberries bring in more revenue than any other crop, growers believed that "the first one of us to use it publicly is going to get dragged into court."
"Despite extremely thorough evaluation and research, and stringent restrictions on its use, you still had a lot of people who were convinced this was a material that couldn't be used safely," he said. "It has tremendous potential value and utility — but nobody was willing to be a pioneer."
Methyl iodide kills fungal pathogens and other organisms in the soil that are harmful to strawberry plants. It is more expensive than other fumigants, and the state requires a bigger buffer zone between farms that use it and the nearest residential areas.
Its approval on both federal and state levels came despite a letter from more than 50 scientists, including five Nobel laureates, calling the compound "one of the most toxic chemicals used in manufacturing."
Before California approved methyl iodide, an independent scientific review said the chemical could alter DNA and taint groundwater. Still, the state approved it, saying it was safe if used correctly and was urgently needed by strawberry growers.
On Wednesday, some in the industry said the decision would put the U.S., particularly California, at a competitive disadvantage because methyl iodide is licensed for use in eight other countries, including Mexico.
Growers are treating their fields with a variety of chemicals, including limited amounts of methyl bromide. No deadline has been set for an end to methyl bromide application, but federal regulators must approve its use on a year-to-year basis. More strawberries are being grown organically, but they yield 25% to 30% less than conventional berries.
Meanwhile, the state strawberry commission is researching ways to grow berries without soil, using rice hulls and coconut fragments. Aided by a recent $500,000 grant from the state Department of Pest Regulation, scientists are also looking into killing pests with steam, concentrated sunlight and mustard seed.