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Report from Sacramento: Corporate influence on the hot seat

Kathryn Gilje's picture
Kathryn Gilje
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It's often unnerving to face multinational corporate capture of chemical policy and science. I certainly felt like I'd been kicked in the gut last December, when, after a diligent, multi-year review that actually kept science and the health of Californians as core commitments, chemical company influence won out as California legalized "one of the most toxic chemicals on earth" — despite the analysis and recommendations of their own scientists and overwhelming public opposition.

But yesterday, February 22, in Sacramento, I was bolstered by the brave cadre of scientists, farmers, business leaders and politicians (indeed!) who are slowly and tenaciously pushing against corporate influence, aiming not only for the safest alternatives possible for pest control, but for democratic decision-making and scientific integrity in the halls of government.

Yesterday, the California Assembly Committees on Health and Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials held an Oversight Hearing on the Public Health and Environmental Risk of Methyl Iodide in California. Pesticide Action Network was there to publicly support policies that facilitate innovation toward a healthy agricultural economy, to demand that the state undo its approval of methyl iodide, and to stand up against undue corporate influence.

Farmers' groups speak out

During the hearing, I found my faith in the abilities and willingness of farmers to innovate rewarded by the several farmer organizations that either spoke firmly against methyl iodide or spoke in favor of research, investment and policy support for safe alternatives in lieu of all fumigant pesticides used in industrial strawberry production. That's right — not just methyl iodide, but all of the fumigant pesticides, the gasses that are injected directly into the soil to sterilize and kill just about everything.

It might sound a bit technical, but it's a transition worth watching! The replacement of all fumigant pesticides with green chemistry and ecologically sound farming alternatives would mean an end to an extraordinarily toxic group of chemicals linked to cancers, nervous system diseases, birth defects and miscarriages. And it would mean a rebirth of our soil, and the vitality and health therein. Robust soil is the foundation of a healthy food and farming future.

Yesterday, the California State Grange, in particular, showed courage in standing for farmer and rural Californian interests, rather than chemical corporations. And the California Strawberry Commission spoke strongly in favor of investment in alternatives to fumigant pesticides.

Not impressive, if predictable: the pro-chemical-industry remarks of the Farm Bureau representative. We know the Farm Bureau doesn't really represent family farmers, but this spokesperson hit a new low when he offensively likened the use of methyl iodide (linked to fetal death, birth defects and cancer) and other fumigants, to "good pre-natal care" for California fields. He found no cause for concern with the fact that the way California approved methyl iodide legalizes exposure at up to 100 times higher than levels their own scientists recommended to prevent fetal death and birth defects.

Of course, the deliberations occured within the critical context of protecting public health while simultaneously strengthening the economy. Craig Wichner, director of the private equity firm Farmland LP, spoke directly to this point during the morning press conference,

From the viewpoint of this investor, methyl iodide will not only sterilize and pollute the soil, but it will kill jobs, kill investment in agriculture, and kill another opportunity for California to lead the nation in healthy, sustainable and organic food production.... There is simply no need to mix this pesticide with strawberries. Per the California Strawberry Commission, California produced a record crop of strawberries in 2010 – without methyl iodide. And certified organic strawberries, grown without methyl iodide and methyl bromide, made up 4.5% of the crop acres, while generating an even higher percentage of the profits and revenues. Best of all for California’s economy, organic, sustainable agriculture employs twice as many people while still being more profitable.

'The scientific process was subverted'

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that, "The strongest testimony this week came from John Froines, a professor of environmental health at UC Los Angeles who led that independent panel hired by the state to assess the risks of methyl iodide. They recommended that California not approve the chemical."

Froines told lawmakers Tuesday that "the scientific process was subverted," by the [Dept. of Pesticide Regulation] when it approved the chemical, and he called it "painful" for him "both personally and professionally." He went on to list methyl bromide's dangers, including its potential to damage the central nervous system. He said he used the chemical in the laboratory when he was a graduate student at Yale University and it was "terrifying," and that the state essentially used bad science to rationalize its approval.
"There is not a safe level of methly iodide," he said. "I would not want my friends, family or anyone else for that matter to work with, live near or go to places near fields where methyl iodide (is used). You had the best science on the issue and the fact that it was ignored is devastating."

Dr. Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council assured the committees once again that public health and the environment will not be safe if methyl iodide is used. She affirmed that in her estimation, given methly iodide's propensity to target the brain and nervous system, California will face more illness if it moves forward with methyl iodide.

Where do we go from here?

As California budget conversations calm down over the coming months, we imagine that Governor Brown will appoint a director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation who will take up the case.

Yesterday's hearing in Sacramento was an key first step in registering the importance of the issue with the incoming administration. And it would not have taken place without a clear and unambiguos message from Californians and people across the country that protecting public health and public science from corporate influence are, indeed, priorities. We'll keep you posted.

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