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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: Poisonberries

Tough choice: 26 cents more for a basket of strawberries, or skin cancer.

by Paul Rauber

Doubtless God could have made a better berry," 16th-century essayist William Butler said of the strawberry, "but doubtless God never did." That has not stopped modern industrial agriculture from trying to improve upon the design, seeking strawberries that can be grown without blemish in great concentration in huge fields, and sold very cheaply.

It has largely succeeded, although at an enormous cost not only to the strawberries themselves (which tend to be pale, woody, and bland) but to human health and the environment. The ugly secret to the modern strawberry's commercial success is methyl bromide, a pesticide gas that is injected into the soil to kill insects, nematodes, rodents, and other subsurface critters. Because it is odorless, methyl bromide has to be mixed with tear gas so farmworkers will know when they are being exposed to its deadly fumes.

The toxicity of methyl bromide is not in dispute. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a "category 1 acute toxin"; laboratory tests on beagles last year had to be terminated because of severe neurological effects, manifested by the animals "slamming the head and body into cage walls." Yet despite its immediate health consequences, the gravest danger of methyl bromide may be its corrosive effect on the earth's ozone layer, which shields us from lethal ultraviolet radiation. Atom for atom, methyl bromide is 50 times more destructive to ozone than chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Many people assumed that with the ban on CFC production beginning this year, the problem of ozone depletion had been solved. On the contrary, last winter the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica lasted a record 40 days, stretching as far as South America and Australia. Another hole now regularly appears in the northern hemisphere, extending as far south as Scandinavia. The consequences are frightening: every 1 percent decrease in the ozone layer results in a 1 to 2 percent increase in non-melanoma skin cancer and up to 150,000 extra cases of cataract-induced blindness worldwide.

Under the Clean Air Act, U.S. production of methyl bromide is supposed to cease in the year 2001. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer calls for a world ban by 2010. Large agricultural interests--primarily strawberry growers in California and tomato growers in Florida--are afraid that going first will cause them to lose market share. They claim that the pesticide is indispensable and irreplaceable, and are lobbying hard to be exempted until 2010, or even beyond.

Growers are stuck on methyl bromide because nothing else is as simple and profitable. Even though fumigating an acre of strawberries costs about $1,400, it yields profits of up to $5,000. While agribusiness forecasts disaster if it is forced to do without its favorite poison, the Pesticide Action Network calculates that without methyl bromide, a basket of strawberries would cost only about 26 cents more than the 89- cent average. A United Nations technical committee has found, in fact, that alternatives already exist for 90 percent of current methyl bromide applications, including standard organic farming methods such as crop rotation and the use of cover crops and organic fertilizers.

In the Netherlands, soil in greenhouses that might once have been fumigated with methyl bromide is now treated with steam, while hot, dry regions have had success with solarization--covering the soil with thin plastic to concentrate heat and kill unwanted organisms. Many U.S. growers are voluntarily abandoning the pesticide; in California, the Frey, Fetzer, and Gallo wineries have largely stopped using it in their vineyards.

The strawberry and tomato industries, however, remain hooked on the chemical. In California, where a statewide ban was to have taken effect in March, methyl bromide users (who have contributed over $100,000 to Governor Pete Wilson since 1993) won an extension until at least 2001. Nationally, an industry lobby called the Methyl Bromide Working Group boasts to its members that "we intend to change the law which allows EPA to ban methyl bromide," claiming that "we stand an increasingly good chance of being able to use methyl bromide well beyond the year 2001."

What makes their chances so good is the complicity of Congress and the White House. In its eagerness to win the votes of legislators from Florida and California for the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Clinton administration promised to take another look at the 2001 ban, and the EPA stated its position of "assuring the continued availability of methyl bromide where it is needed because of the lack of acceptable alternatives."

This disappointing policy has the support of some retrograde legislators from ag states like Representative Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who goes so far as to challenge the reality of ozone depletion. Last year, when the Nobel Prize went to three ozone researchers whose work was critical to the international ban, DeLay (a former exterminator) derided it as "the Nobel appeasement prize," noting that Sweden is "an extremist environmental country." His colleague, Representative John Doolittle (R-Calif.), claims that "there has not been a sufficient showing of scientific evidence to justify the current and rapidly approaching ban date."

One could hardly hope for a more concise summary of the government's approach to banning methyl bromide: do little and delay. But the application of heat is as effective on politicians as it is at driving pests out of soil; it's time to light a fire under our elected representatives to get rid of this poison once and for all.

For more information on methyl bromide, contact the Pesticide Action Network, 116 New Montgomery St., Suite 810, San Francisco, CA 94105; (415) 541-9140;

Green Plate Special:
Strawberry Snow Pea Salad

An excuse to eat strawberries before dessert.

1 head Romaine lettuce
36 snow peas, ends and strings removed
2 cups organic strawberries, cut in half

Wash and dry lettuce. Blanch snow peas briefly, plunge in ice water to stop cooking. Arrange leaves on six salad plates, with snow peas on top. Place a mound of strawberries in the center of each salad.

Top with a raspberry vinaigrette:

2/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup raspberry vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
Whisk together, drizzle on salad, and serve.

--reprinted with permission from It's the Berries! by Liz Anton and Beth Dooley, published by Storey Communications, Pownal, VT

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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