Strawberry fields forever

Read the KQED story on the California Environmental Protection Agency’s work on methyl iodide online at

Those plump, juicy red berries that we love, whether fresh off the vine or dipped in chocolate, have a cost, and it’s not just the price per pound paid at the grocery store.

Strawberries, a $2 billion agricultural industry in California—which grows 90 percent of the nation’s strawberries—are particularly susceptible to fungus and nematodes. To thwart that, generations of strawberry growers have been using a fumigant called methyl bromide. But methyl bromide has been banned by international treaty, so now the growers want to use methyl iodide.

Not such a good idea. Although the pesticide was—rather controversially—approved for use by the federal Environmental Protection Agency under the Bush administration, California’s tougher standards have made it difficult to register for use here. In fact, state scientists in the California Environmental Protection Agency reviewed the data on methyl iodide and found such high levels of toxicity that evidence suggested it could not be safely used even in small amounts. The state scientists were supported by a review panel of independent scientists, luminaries in the field assembled by the state to evaluate the data, who strongly advised the state against registering the pesticide for use.

That advice is in danger of being ignored by management at the state’s Environmental Protection Agency. Pointing to EPA approval in other states, the managers suggest that more stringent mitigation—smaller amounts approved for use, larger buffer zones between fields and residential areas—will make methyl iodide “safe” for use on California’s strawberry fields.

It helps to know that methyl iodide is used to induce cancer in lab animals and is listed as a known carcinogen. It’s linked to lung, liver, kidney and neurological damage, and is known to cause fetal defects and miscarriages when pregnant women are exposed. Given that strawberries tend to be grown in coastal areas, with schools, residential and resort areas nearby, farmworkers aren’t the only people who need to worry about exposure.

Of particular concern is a recent KQED report on the registration process, which suggests that Cal/EPA management is ignoring—or worse, altering—the work done by the state’s own scientists, perhaps under pressure by growers to assist a financially important sector of California’s agricultural economy.

We understand that economic needs are pressing, but a short-term gain for the economy is not worth the long-term risks to the health of Californians. Methyl iodide is not safe. The panel of independent scientists recruited by the state to examine the evidence was clear about that, and news reports indicate that they are outraged at the plan to register methyl iodide.

There are other means of protecting California’s strawberry crops.

This is a no-brainer. Methyl iodide should not be used to fumigate California’s crops.