Politics of the Plate:
Toxic Strawberries?

California’s governor will soon decide whether to approve a new—and possibly very dangerous—pesticide for use on this beloved summer fruit.
methyl iodide

California strawberry farms could soon become toxic sites, if governor Arnold Schwarzenegger succumbs to industry pressure to bypass scientific review by the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation and allows growers to apply methyl iodide, a potent fumigant that kills every living organism in the soil. He is expected to make a decision in the next two weeks.

Methyl iodide was introduced to agriculture as a replacement for another sinister fumigant called methyl bromide, which was phased out of the nation’s fields (except for “allowable exemptions”) in 2005 because it was a major contributor to depletion of the ozone layer. Methyl iodide may not harm the atmosphere, but its effects on animals and humans is another matter entirely: Exposure to the chemical has been found to cause thyroid toxicity, neurological damage, and fetal loss in lab animals.

In 2007, a group of more than 50 chemists and doctors from dozens of American universities wrote a letter to the EPA pleading with the Bush-era regulators not to approve methyl iodide, which they described as a “highly reactive chemical” with “well-known cancer hazards.” They wrote: “We are concerned that pregnant women and the fetus, children, the elderly, farm workers, and other people living near application sites would be at serious risk.”

Pointing out that the EPA itself has been trying to get methyl bromide out of chemical manufacturing plants, where it is used for the synthesis of new molecules, they said, “We are perplexed that that the U.S. EPA would even consider the introduction of a chemical like methyl iodide into agricultural use.”

The EPA went ahead and approved methyl iodide, but Paul Towers, California Director of Pesticide Watch, told Kat Lynch, a reporter with the Santa Cruz News, that New York State had rejected the use of the chemical in its fields. “As a society we should collectively be moving toward safer practices,” he told Lynch.

It’s just getting to the end of strawberry season here in Vermont. I pick up a quart of organic berries at the farmers market and enjoy them in the morning with a sprinkle of sugar and some organic heavy cream from Butterworks Farm, quite happy that my breakfast has come in contact with neither methyl bromide nor methyl iodide.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, please take note: You can grow a perfectly delicious strawberry without recourse to toxic chemicals.

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