After years of promoting their product in the face of scientific opposition, pesticide manufacturer Arysta LifeScience yielded to mounting pressure and pulled cancer-causing methyl iodide off the US market. The decision comes as California officials draw up a plan to help farmers transition away from fumigant pesticides, especially in the state’s strawberry fields. Arysta’s decision ends U.S. use of what state scientist reviewers called, “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.”
“Arysta saw the writing on the wall when it pulled cancer-causing methyl iodide. This is a tremendous victory, where scientific integrity has outweighed pesticide industry pull when it comes to food and farming. This decision is born of the tireless work of farmers, farmworkers, rural high school students and mothers who are keeping strawberries safe,” said Paul Towers, spokesperson for Pesticide Action Network.
Methyl iodide was approved in 2010 in California despite concerns voiced by both a panel of independent scientists and the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR)’s staff scientists. The panel chair, Dr. John Froines, called methyl iodide, “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth,” citing research that the pesticide causes cancer, late-term miscarriages and contaminates groundwater. Over 200,000 scientists, farmers, farmworkers, environmentalists and other members of the public sent comments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last May urging the federal agency to follow the science and ban the pesticide nationally. Washington State used California’s research to reject methyl iodide, and federal regulators have been watching California to determine next steps on the chemical.
Methyl iodide is a soil fumigant pesticide, a particular type of pesticide applied at very high rates per acre that readily transform into a gas, making them difficult to control and prone to drift away from the application site. Rural families and farmworkers throughout Florida and California, in particular, are the mostly likely to be exposed to these chemicals. Boards of Supervisors in two counties in the heart of strawberry country, Santa Cruz and Monterey, both recently issued statements opposing the use of the methyl iodide.
“Rural Californians are on the front lines of fumigant pesticide exposure, and have sent a clear message that healthy communities and vibrant economies are inseparable,” said Dana Perls, a community organizer for Pesticide Watch Education Fund working on California’s Central Coast.
Yesterday, a Tehama County California community released results that detected high concentrations of the fumigant chloropicrin applied to strawberry fields in air near their homes. Chloropicrin, which would have been mixed with all applications of methyl iodide in the state, is a severe respiratory irritant and a potent carcinogen.
“Now is the time for California leadership to seize this opportunity to help farmers transition away from the fumigant pesticides generally, and towards cutting-edge agriculture,” said Towers. Earlier this month, DPR Director Leahy signaled a new direction for strawberry growing in California by partnering with the California Strawberry Commission to invest in alternatives to fumigant pesticides. Over 85% of the nation’s strawberries are grown in the state.
“We’re delighted to see this surge of innovation in California agriculture towards more modern methods of farming that don’t involve using toxic fumigant pesticides. Non-fumigant methods of soil pest control will ensure greater long-term stability for growers and a larger market for their produce,” said Dr. Susan Kegley, consulting scientist for Pesticide Action Network.
Despite high fumigant pesticide use in conventional agriculture, California leads the country in organic farming with over 430,000 acres in production and average annual growth of 15%. And farmers and entrepreneurs are looking for alternatives to fumigant pesticides. Current and emerging alternatives include use of disease resistant cultivars and varieties, solarization, steam treatments, crop rotations, use of green manures such as mustard seed meal, and anaerobic disinfestation.
“Methyl iodide is just one of many hazardous pesticide fumigants that must be phased out and replaced with safe alternatives,” said Tracey Brieger, Co-Director for Californians for Pesticide Reform. “California and national decision-makers must show leadership and enforce strongly existing laws designed to protect public health from pesticide air pollution as we work towards safe alternatives.”
Arysta’s decision comes in the wake of weak sales of methyl iodide, as scientific and public concern over its use remained strong, and farmers did not readily adopt the chemical. As of early 2011, Arysta indicated in a comment letter to U.S. EPA that methyl iodide had been used on 15,000 acres in the U.S. since it was registered in October of 2007. The treated acreage represents less than one percent of the total number of acres that could have potentially been treated with the pesticide.