Fuming About Fumigants In Strawberry Fields

BY ON September 12, 2011

Basket of strawberries

Do those baskets of sweet, aromatic strawberries beckon to you as you roll your cart though the produce aisles this time of year? That enticing scent masks the not-so-fragrant fact that some of Central California’s industrial strawberry producers are polluting the air in their fields and the communities that surround them with methyl iodide, a chemical so toxic that breathing it in can cause miscarriages, fetal brain damage, and other serious health problems.

Strawberries are big business in the Central Valley. So big, in fact, that California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) approved the use of this highly controversial chemical over the objections of its own scientists last year .

Methyl iodide is a fumigant that kills soil-borne pests and diseases. It’s also a known carcinogen and suspected neurotoxin. Exposure to it poses a particular threat to the health of farm workers and the rural, largely Latino communities that surround California’s industrial strawberry operations. And with the average industrially grown strawberry containing 54 pesticide residues, those cartons of berries start to seem more like a Pandora’s box of botanical badness than a basket of sweet treats.

The DPR’s scientists cautioned that agricultural use of methyl iodide “would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health.”

Mary-Ann Warmerdam, who led the DPR at the time, took issue with the scientists’ recommendation that farmworkers not be exposed to more than trace amounts of methyl iodide per day. Internal documents that have just been released thanks to a lawsuit by the non-profit Earthjustice reveal that Warmerdam declared the DPR scientists’ proposed restrictions–which were also endorsed by outside scientists– “unacceptable” because they would be economically unviable to the strawberry producers.

Warmerdam, who fought the release of the documents, resigned from the DPR earlier this year to take a position at Clorox, but there’s no disinfecting her record on methyl iodide. The documents show not just a blatant disregard for science, but a willful manipulation of data devised to manufacture a ruling that would favor company profits at the expense of farmworkers and the residents whose homes and schools border the fields.

Sadly, corrupt bureaucrats like Warmerdam are not the exception; too many government agencies we entrust to protect us from harm use their resources, instead, to aid the companies who are willing to jeopardize our health and contaminate our communities, if it boosts their bottom line.

September is strawberry planting season in California, and the prospect of more and more strawberry producers dousing their fields with methyl iodide has galvanized a grassroots movement to get Governor Jerry Brown to ban this noxious chemical, which never should have been approved in the first place. From Facebook flash-mobbing to a ‘mock-fumigation’ protest on the steps of the state’s capital, the anti-methyl iodide tide is rising.

Ironically, methyl iodide was approved as a replacement for methyl bromide, another toxic, problematic soil fungicide which is being phased out. In fact, to resolve a 1999 civil rights case in which it acknowledged that the DPR’s annual approval of methyl bromide use “disproportionately and adversely” affected the Latino schoolchildren whose schools were near the sprayed strawberry crops.

It took more than a decade for the EPA to address that complaint. Will we be looking, a decade from now, at a similar settlement made on behalf of farmworkers, environmentalists and consumers against the DPA and the manufacturer of methyl iodide? I guess that depends on whether the next occupant of the White House ‘believes’ in science, or views the EPA as a ‘job-killing’ agency that ought to be dismantled because regulations are strangling corporations.

But whose right to breathe takes precedence? If a corporation were truly a person, methyl iodide would pose just as great a risk to the corporation’s respiratory and reproductive system as it does to ours. If only it did, perhaps Arysta LifeScience, the manufacturer of methyl iodide, wouldn’t be asking that we, the people, just suck it up.

JOIN MOMS CLEAN AIR FORCE and help keep workers safe and our strawberries delectably delicious.

Thank you, Kerry!

Kerry Trueman is a climate change activist/writer/speaker who advocates low-impact living, healthy eating, sustainable agriculture and related topics in a lively, non-wonky way. Dubbed “the Frank Rich of the good food movement” by Civil Eats editor Paula Crossfield, she has been a regular contributor to the Huffington Post since 2007. She also writes for AlterNet, Grist, and Civil Eats. Trueman wrote the chapter on how to eat ecologically for Rodale’s Whole Green Catalog. She is co-founder of Eating Liberally and a national leader of Living Liberally, the powerhouse netroots social network which includes Drinking Liberally, Laughing Liberally, Screening Liberally, et al. Trueman has also been a consultant to the Meatless Monday Campaign and serves on Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s food policy steering committee. She appears in the documentary No Impact Man and has been a guest on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show.

Photo Credit: Dominique Browning

TOPICS: Activism, Latino Community, Politics, Pollution, Social Justice

  • It’s always amazing to me how long strawberry season lasts in California! Here in Connecticut, they’re only local in June. Anyway, it does bother me that they’re sprayed with so much. However, I tend not to buy berries out of season because they’re just not the same. I do wish that these sprays would be more highly regulated, especially for the sake of the farm workers and the farm neighbors!

  • Thanks for drilling down on this. When I came across this info in late May, in addition to mentioning it, I took California strawberries off our shopping list completely.

  • Thanks for this. I haven’t touched non-organic strawberries in years (and so, we therefore don’t have them too often–only when they are growing in our garden or when we can get organic). I have two little sections about strawberries in my new book, Food for My Daughters (www.foodformydaughters.com). Page 78-79: “Cheap, or Dear” and page 79-80: “Hold the Methyl Bromide, Please.”

  • My instinct is not to buy fruit that is out of season locally, but as Abbie mentions, we have such a short growing season in the northeast – we don’t get our fill of fruit like strawberries. After reading this, I’m thinking seriously of freezing local fruit when it is in season. That way I know where it comes from, my family doesn’t get doused with nasty chemicals, and farm workers are safer. Thanks!

  • Wendy

    Thanks for this post-
    This is why we need more regulation, not less. The purpose of government is to help and protect the people. We can’t let the Koch brothers and big business poison our children to increase their bottom for the sake of their free market religion. It’s completely insane and we have to stop the destruction of our environmental protections NOW!

  • Thank you for sharing with us your thoughts on harsh chemicals being used by some farmers and pest control companies. The chemicals can be absorbed by the plants and we do eat their fruits and this can cause serious health problems. What most of us do not realize is that pests are not only found in farms or forests, but they can also be present in our home garden or inside our abode.