Paul Towers

Paul Towers

California is ready for safe strawberries

Last Thursday, I joined about 50 farmworker, health and sustainable farming advocates in Sacramento to cheer California on towards fumigant-free farming. We were there to urge legislators to support new technologies and practices that will make agriculture in the state more sustainable and resilient.

Fumigants are among the most hazardous pesticides on the market, and their continued use threatens the health of California communities. But transitioning away from these chemicals won’t happen if pesticidemakers, and their lobbyists and allies roaming the Capitol's halls, get their way.

Following up on the recent Department of Pesticide Regulation report outlining alternatives to fumigants in strawberry production, legislators convened a hearing on Thursday to probe the topic further. Pesticide industry supporters were present in full force; they cornered legislators and unleashed hired-gun consultants to try and refute presentations by credentialed scientists.

PAN and allies from across the state were also present in impressive numbers. Before filling the hearing room, we assembled on the Capitol steps to call for a full phaseout of fumigants by 2020. Cesar Lara, executive director of the Monterey Bay Labor Council which represents thousands of farmworkers on the Central Coast, set the tone for the day:

“Government-supported transition to fumigant-free farming is a win-win-win-win situation: good for farmers, good for farmworkers, good for health and good for the economy.”

Even as Lara described the challenges farmworkers and neighboring communities face, industry lobbyists were busy pressing legislators to ignore this opportunity.

The case against fumigants grows stronger

There’s no question that fumigant pesticides are hazardous, widely used and difficult to control. Californians that live near agricultural fields find themselves breathing fumigants like chloropicrin in the air near their homes time and time again, even when they are applied according to the labels.

At last week’s hearing, Dr. Asa Bradman, a UC Berkeley professor associated with the landmark CHAMACOS study of children and pesticides, highlighted findings from a paper released just a few days prior. He and his colleagues studied use of the fumigant methyl bromide near the homes of pregnant women, and evaluated impacts on children born in the subsequent year. The results were disturbing, to say the least:

“More methyl bromide use within five kilometers of a home is associated with lower birth weight, lower birth length and smaller head circumference.”

State and federal policymakers are creating more restrictions on volatile fumigants, especially near agricultural fields when farmworkers are present, as well as near schools and neighborhoods. Research continues to show the health harms of these pesticides, and it’s only a matter of time before fumigants are completely phased out.  

Missed opportunities…but more to come

No doubt opposition to change will be strong. If last week’s hearing was any indication, health, environmental and farming advocates have our work cut out for us. The room was filled with many of the same lobbyists we've encountered before, including a laundry list of pesticidemaker clients including CropLife, aerial applicators and the Western Plant Health Association.

Legislators missed an important opportunity Thursday to move the state in the right direction by publicly championing alternatives to fumigant pesticides and committing to fumigant-free farming by 2020. Only with this kind of leadership, bringing existing and new state and federal resources into alignment — along with support from the University of California system — will we be able to move forward.

Last Thursday's trip to Sacramento is a reminder of the vigilance we must show in the face of well-heeled lobbyists and the corporations they represent. The state is ready for safe strawberries, with support from scores of farmers, and farmworkers we're working with across the state.

Now it’s time for leaders in Sacramento to step up.

Paul Towers

Paul Towers

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