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Organic Farmers Call for Clear Rules to “Spur Innovation”

Paul Towers, Pesticide Action Network, 916-216-1082 (cell)

September 23, 2011

Organic Farmers Call for Clear Rules to “Spur Innovation

Farmers urge federal regulators to clarify organic rules
to eliminate the use of methyl iodide and promote green farming

San Francisco, CA – In light of growing concerns about the use of the cancer-causing strawberry pesticide methyl iodide, the New York Times reports today that farmers are urging the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to clarify rules around the use of pesticides in plant nurseries. In particular, farmers are calling on federal officials to eliminate the use of pesticide fumigants used to grow some strawberry seedlings.

“USDA has a unique opportunity to set us on the right course by directing the power of agriculture to create a green economy,” said Larry Jacobs, owner of Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo in Pescadero, California. “Eliminating the use of pesticide fumigants is good for farmers, protects our health and creates jobs by clearing the way for innovation.”

Jacobs and his team, along with academic researchers across the country, are aggressively pursuing alternatives to fumigation. Recently completed trials that increase soil moisture to create low-oxygen conditions, while adding rice bran or molasses combined with mustard seed meal, have shown promising results in controlling soil pests.

The practice of sterilizing the soil with fumigant pesticides, which are injected into the ground as gas, poses some of the most serious threats to farmers, farmworkers and rural communities. Chemical fumigants have been responsible for numerous mass poisoning incidents, are extraordinarily difficult to control in the field, and are among the most highly toxic pesticides that remain on the market. New tools like mustard seed meal in combination with anaerobic soil disinfestation would replace fumigants like methyl bromide, chloropicrin, and Telone, among others. California’s recent, controversial approval of the strawberry fumigant, methyl iodide, has increased public awareness and concern around this class of pesticides.

“I’ve been growing strawberries without using pesticides in California for 25 years,” said Jim Cochran, owner of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, California.  “It’s certainly possible to grow commercially-viable and ecologically sound strawberry crops without using methyl iodide or any other chemical pesticides. But with 98% of USDA’s research budget devoted to pesticide-dependent farming practices, the most innovative, non-toxic agricultural practices – like fumigant-free farming – don’t get the time or space to gain market traction.”

Under tremendous pressure from the pesticide’s manufacturer Arysta, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation allowed the chemical to be used on agricultural fields at over one hundred pounds per acre. The controversial decision was in direct conflict with independent scientists who reviewed the chemical and called it “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.”

As California considers pulling cancer-causing methyl iodide off the shelf, farmers are asking federal officials for additional guidance to ensure that these fumigants are not used in the production of strawberry seedlings.

“Federal regulators have undermined small businesses that employ cutting-edge technology to produce organic strawberries,” said James Rickert of Prather Ranch and an organic strawberry nursery grower from Palo Cedro, California. “Clear guidance around existing rules will spur innovation. Markets need clear signals to work well, and right now, the rules aren’t clear.”

To date, the rules have largely exempted organic farmers from purchasing fumigant-free seedlings: they specify no timeline for phase-out, and offer no incentives for research into alternatives. As a result, the market for organic seedlings has suffered. Rickert, for example, effectively closed the doors of his nursery last year because organic growers were allowed to purchase cheaper seedlings from his counterparts grown with fumigants. He has since stated that he would jump-start his business with clear guidance from the USDA’s National Organic Program. “We were glad to have James Rickert start offering organic transplants, and we bought his plants – which were of very high quality,” added Jim Cochran.

The comments – due on August 12th— are part of the National Organic Program’s efforts to provide guidance to organic farmers about the types of seeds and seedlings they use or purchase. Among several points, farmers articulate the need for a window of transition, time for nurseries to grow a wider variety of fumigant-free seedlings they can provide to strawberry farmers, and time for strawberry farmers to incorporate the use of fumigant-free seedlings into their operations.

In response to over 200,000 comments filed this spring, the US Environmental Protection Agency is considering taking methyl iodide off the market. At the same time, Governor Jerry Brown has said he will take a “fresh look” at the issue but has yet to appoint a Director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation who would expressly prohibit the use of the chemical. Meanwhile, several organizations, including Pesticide Action Network and the United Farm Workers, remain engaged in litigation against the California Department of Pesticide Regulation due to health and environmental concerns around the pesticide.

A copy of the farmer’s letter to USDA can be found here and the draft USDA Guidance on Seeds, Seedlings, and Annual Planting Stock in Organic Production can be found here.


Available for Interviews:

James Rickert, Prather Ranch, organic strawberry seedling grower, 530-941-0810 (cell),

Larry Jacobs, Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo, organic farmer, 650-224-0804 (cell),

Jim Cochran, Swanton Berry Farm, organic strawberry farmer, 831-818-3942 (cell),

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