After cancer-causing methyl iodide was pulled from the U.S. market last year, California state officials convened a panel to investigate ending reliance on all fumigant pesticides (like methyl iodide) in strawberry fields.
Yesterday, the Department of Pesticide Regulation released the panel's report detailing current research to help strawberry growers transition away from using fumigant pesticides. And while farmers, scientists and health advocates welcome the report, many are calling for bolder, swifter action.
Fumigants are among the most toxic and difficult-to-control pesticides used in farming. They are applied at very high rates per acre and are readily transformed into a gas, making them prone to drifting away from the application site. Rural families and farmworkers throughout California face the greatest direct threats of exposure from these chemicals, and children are especially vulnerable to the health risks fumigants pose.
Dan Gannon, farmer and owner of Humble Roots CSA in West Sacramento, is one of many urging the state to adopt a clear timeline and allocate necessary resources to transition all California crops — not just strawberries — off of fumigants:
“We need to do this for the sake of our soil, to protect neighboring communities and to ensure a resilient and sustainable farm economy into the future. But we need the right tools for the job, and we won’t have those tools unless the state invests in safe soil management technologies and techniques to replace fumigants.”
Strawberries are a significant crop in California, accounting for 88% of the country's strawberries. But soil fumigants are also used on many other vegetables and fruits in the state, including wine grapes. By investing wisely in fumigant alternatives, the state can support farmers in leading a historic shift in agriculture. As Gannon said, "California farmers are ready, willing and able to lead the nation in transitioning off of fumigant pesticides."
While the panel convened by DPR focused on strawberry production, the new techniques are also relevant to all crops that rely on fumigants.
The body of DPR's 40-page report provides a thorough and promising review of the most cutting-edge fumigant replacement technologies and practices — and the next research steps to make them market ready.
However, the executive summary advocates for continued use of methyl bromide, which was banned in 2005 under an international treaty agreement. Under successive exemptions, the fumigant has remained in wide use.
Tracey Brieger — co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform — says it's time to stop relying on methyl bromide and invest in viable fumigant alternatives:
“Continuing to rely on fumigants such as methyl bromide is hitting the snooze alarm on innovation and putting the continued prosperity of California agriculture at risk."
In line with her point, farm and health advocates also released an action plan yesterday, urging the state to commit to a clear goal of transitioning California agriculture off of fumigants by 2020.
To ensure a successful transition, they recommend that the state provide direct support and expanded agricultural extension services for growers who voluntarily want to transition, fund on-farm field trials of replacement techniques, and expand plant breeding programs to develop disease-resistant varietals for crops that rely on fumigants.
Farmers and entrepreneurs have developed a variety of effective replacements for fumigant pesticides, including use of disease-resistant cultivars, solarization, steam treatments, crop rotations, mustard seed meal and anaerobic soil disinfestation. DPR’s report summarizes the state of the research on such replacements.
Bob McFarland, President of the California State Grange, summed up the need for fumigant-free farming succinctly:
"To keep California’s agricultural economy productive and competitive, we must move in this direction together and with public support."
Join us in continuing to build public support, and stay tuned for developments moving forward. It will take all of us, working together, to ensure that we stay on track towards fumigant-free fields.