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Large Scale Farming Without Toxic Pesticides is Still a Distant Dream

Chemical fumigant use in California highlights the challenges of scaling up eco-friendly and economic alternatives

When the manufacturer of methyl iodide pulled the pesticide off the United States market in 2012 after years of public outcry from farmworkers, environmental groups, and top scientists, proponents of pesticide-free farming felt the wind of change had begun. The science — and the people — had spoken: Methyl iodide as a proposed replacement for the fumigant methyl bromide, an ozone depleter being phased out by an international treaty, was not really a worthy alternative at all. But the road to toxic-free farming is a long one and this battle was only the beginning. 

photonamePhoto by Jonathan Winslow/Farm Fuel Inc.A bed-top biofumigant application on a strawberry field in California. There's increasing interest in plant-based biofumigants, but effective industrial-scale use of such products is still a long way off.

Methyl iodide is used to control pest insects, nematodes, rodents, weeds, and pathogens, but it is also a carcinogen and can cause brain damage and miscarriages among farmworkers and handlers. The US Environmental Protection Agency approved methyl iodide for use in 2007, and 47 states followed suit. California conducted additional studies before registering it for use in 2010. Fumigants are used in conventional strawberry cultivation, and as California produces nearly 90 percent of the nation’s strawberries, the state was poised to become the largest user of methyl iodide following regulators’ approval. 

But farmers were hesitant to use the controversial product, partly because they were worried about subsequent lawsuits from pesticide watchdog groups. The market for methyl iodide never took off in the US. In March 2012, Tokyo-based pesticide company Arysta LifeScience Inc., the only company that manufactures methyl iodide under the brand name MIDAS, issued a statement explaining it had suspended production of the product in the United States “based on its economic viability” in the marketplace. And by November the company and the EPA reached an agreement to end all use of MIDAS in the United States by January 1, 2013. 

The demise of methyl iodide was a resounding success for pesticide watchdog groups, but the fight for safe alternatives to synthetic pesticides is far from over. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation is now proposing new restrictions to yet another chemical fumigant — chloropicrin — that is also widely used in California’s $2 billion strawberry industry. The move once again highlights just how heavily large-scale farming still relies on synthetic chemicals. 

“There’s pervasiveness in the old guard that chemicals are the only way we can keep farming,” said Paul Towers, organizing director for Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit based in Oakland, CA. 

Towers and his comrades recognize they can’t simply oppose hazardous fumigants currently used to produce strawberries, peppers, nursery plants, and other fruits and vegetables. They must promote safe, more eco-friendly alternatives with the potential for large-scale application and that won’t drain the bank accounts of California farmers. 

“We need to provide farmers tools needed to make the transition to cutting-edge green solutions,” Towers said.

‘Methyl iodide 2.0’

On a June day, Towers sat among some 50 other attendees at a Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) public hearing in Redding, CA, on proposed new restrictions for chloropicrin. 

Chloropicrin is injected into the soil or applied via drip irrigation before planting to control soil borne diseases and pests. According to a 2011 report from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, chloropicrin has the potential to drift following an application. Meaning, applicators and people living near treated fields may be exposed to the chemical. The assessment noted that nearly 5.7 million pounds of chloropicrin were used in California in 2009. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists chloropicrin as a lung-damaging agent, and describes the chemical compound as an “irritant with characteristics of a tear gas.” 

DPR has been developing tighter restrictions for chloropicrin since 2011, shortly after officials designated the fumigant a toxic air contaminant. Also during that timeframe, the EPA identified acute (short-term) inhalation exposure as chloropicrin’s biggest risk. DPR’s mitigation measures go further than the EPA’s restrictions in protecting bystanders and residents from exposure. The proposal includes such elements as buffer zones, acreage limits, time periods between applications, emergency preparedness, and notice of intent requirements. 

But pesticide watchdog groups consider the proposal flawed. “It’s methyl iodide 2.0,” Towers said. “It’s almost exactly the same story.” That story, they say, involves the approval of a hazardous fumigant by federal and state regulators despite claims from scientists about the compound’s toxicity. In addition to being listed as a cancer-causing agent on Proposition 65, methyl iodide is linked to lung, liver, kidney, and neurological damage among those who breathe the toxic fumes, such as frontline communities and farmworkers — many of whom lack medical insurance. Acute poisoning is shown to cause nausea, dizziness, coughing, and vomiting. 

photonamePhoto courtesy Farm Fuel Inc.Jonathan Winslow and Stefanie Bourcier of Farm Fuel Inc. in Watsonville, CA are investigating
alternatives to chemical fumigants, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that can be
used large-scale farming operations.

Like methyl iodide, Towers said, DPR’s measures to make chloropicrin safe don’t go far enough. He accuses the department of establishing an unsubstantiated number to represent the safe exposure level, and then devising mitigation measures based on that number. He described the proposed measure as a Band-Aid approach to the problem. 

Besides, he said, solutions on paper don’t always play out the same in the field. For instance, plastic tarps used to contain a fumigant as it spreads throughout the soil and kills everything in its path sometime rip, tear, and blow away. “(The proposal) is stuck in a rut of outdated industrial farming that leaves farmers less competitive and successful,” Towers said. “When we invest as a state in technology, we can be more competitive in the global marketplace and protect the health of communities.”           

The California Strawberry Commission, which represents about 400 conventional and organic growers, isn’t ready to fully adopt any of the fumigant alternatives currently in the pipeline, said Communications Director Carolyn O’Donnell. “Our concern is there is really no other efficient way to control soil-borne diseases than fumigation right now,” she said.

Part of the problem is that, in terms of alternatives, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work as farmers deal with differing climates, landscapes and soil types based on where they are located. Additionally, some so-called eco-friendly alternatives require significant amounts of resources, such as water. 

As Towers and others vocalize their opposition to chloropicrin, they also recognize an obstacle that must be overcome for toxic chemicals to be phased out of conventional farming. Safe alternatives have to be scaled up from research-sized plots for use in commercial fields, and be made truly eco-friendly and affordable.  

Commercializing Eco Alternatives

In a warehouse on a farm in Watsonville, California, Farm Fuel Inc. CEO Stefanie Bourcier lets her 5-year-old son accompany her to work and roam freely unworried about the dangerous chemicals he may encounter. There are none. 

Farm Fuel Inc. is pioneering the development and commercialization of biofumigants (along with natural fertilizer and cover crop seed). Their products are plant-based and certified for use on organic farms by the nonprofit OMRI Products List, which determines products allowable for use in USDA-certified organic operations. 

Launched in 2007 by farmers who wanted to grow their own fuel, the company has evolved to work closely with universities and other groups on getting fumigant replacement products into the marketplace. They investigate alternatives to chemical fumigants, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides and experiment with how products can be applied to real-world farms. They do so with significant input from farmers. “The really special thing we’ve got going on is the group of farmers making up our board,” Bourcier said. “It’s important to be successful and be a good business, but also to support farmers and create products that benefit the community at large.” 

Farm Fuel aims to create products that are equally as beneficial for conventional farmers as for those who grow organically. Organic producers have long been onboard with the company’s mission, as these farmers don’t use fumigants or hazardous pesticides at all when growing crops. Now even some conventional growers are moving toward sustainable farming practices. 

“Within the grower community, the interest in what we do since 2009 and 2010 has radically changed,” Bourcier said. “[Before] when they heard the word ‘biofumigant’ or ‘fumigant replacement,’ it was considered more fringe.” That’s not necessarily the case anymore. 

Part of that increased interest, O’Donnell said, can be attributed to the California Strawberry Commissions’ Farming Without Fumigants Initiative, which has funneled nearly $4 million into grants for research projects over the past four years. The commission’s board — that’s comprised of farmers — decides where the money goes.

O’Donnell points to two promising developments undergoing research: substrate farming and anaerobic soil disinfestations. Substrate farming involves the use of materials other than soil — such as coconut husk — to grow plants, thereby eliminating the problem of soil-borne diseases (soil isn’t essential to plant growth). Funds from the commission’s initiative are being used to investigate 15 different types of materials. 

Anaerobic soil disinfestation (ASD) is being explored by Farm Fuel, which has developed a type of pre-plant soil treatment to control pathogens and replace methyl bromide, which growers continue to use. Anaerobic conditions occur once a carbon source, such as mustard seed, has been applied to soil. The soil is then covered with an impermeable tarp and saturated with water. This anaerobic state deprives pathogens of oxygen. Within three weeks, the soil returns to an aerobic state and it’s time for planting. But this process uses large amounts of water and won’t work on hillside crops, O’Donnell said. 

Effective industrial-scale use of biofumigants is still a long way off. O’Donnell said the effort and time involved in experimenting with emerging alternatives is strenuous, as the ground must be prepared during the fall before planting, then an entire year must pass before results can be gauged.  And results need to be reviewed over a number of years. “Just because it works for one or two years doesn’t mean you’ll see consistent results year after year,” she said. 

Farm Fuel’s ASD treatment is less expensive than the cost of methyl bromide per acre, but remains more costly than some other fumigants, according to Bourcier. The company tested the product on 135 acres last year, and the goal is 1,000 acres this year. Bourcier said results so far appear successful, giving credence to the hope that the product is viable for use on a larger scale. As Farm Fuel keeps up its work, the company could use more assistance from American consumers via the food choices they make.

“There’s a push toward organic,” Bourcier said. “But at times that’s overshadowed by local food, which isn’t always organic or good for the environment.” Farmers need a reason to make the move from using synthetic pesticides to sustainable farming practices and consumers can provide that reason by continuing to push for organic food, she said. 

Sena Christian
Sena Christian is a newspaper reporter in California, but enjoys writing about social justice and sustainability for magazines in her free time. She is an avid soccer player and recently planted her first vegetable garden.

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