Strawberry pesticide targeted by environmentalists, farmworkers


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A coalition of environmental and farmworker groups is urging California’s Gov.-elect Jerry Brown to cancel the imminent approval of a controversial agricultural pesticide after he takes office, citing evidence that it is linked to cancer.

The San-Francisco-based Californians for Pesticide Reform, an umbrella group of 185 organizations, plans to ask Brown to direct officials not to approve methyl iodide as part of a broader set of agricultural recommendations the group will present to the incoming administration next week.


California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation tentatively approved methyl iodide’s use in April, despite concerns by a scientific advisory panel that it could poison air and water. The pesticide, which is used as a fumigant, is included on California’s official list of cancer-causing chemicals.

But regulators insist the chemical can be used safely if strict guidelines are followed. Tests have found no traces of the carcinogen in fruit from treated soil. Strawberries are among the fruits most heavily treated with pesticides in general, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

Department spokeswoman Lea Brooks said the agency plans to make a final decision on methyl iodide by the end of this year — before Brown’s Jan. 3 swearing-in as governor.

Paul Towers, a spokesman for coalition member Pesticide Watch, said the groups hoped a decision wouldn’t be made in the final days of the current administration. “It wouldn’t be given due process unless the new administration has time to review it,” he said.

Brown spokesman Clifford Sterling did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency affirmed methyl iodide for use in most of the country in 2007, but California regulators opted to put it through their own registration process. California’s $1.6-billion strawberry industry would probably be the main user of methyl iodide, which is promoted as a substitute for methyl bromide, a chemical being phased out under an international treaty because it depletes the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Last August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to review the toxicity of methyl iodide, following on an independent California analysis of the chemical by several renowned experts released earlier this year.


California Sen. Diane Feinstein has also asked federal officials to reconsider the toxicity of the chemical and its approval for use. Methyl iodide’s current users include growers of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other crops in Florida and other southeastern states.

Other recommendations in the environmental groups’ policy brief include encouraging more organic agricultural practices and improving enforcement of pesticide laws. The coalition’s other members include the Pesticide Action Network North America, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.


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-- Margot Roosevelt, with Jacob Adelman /AP