Local agriculture officials are seeking an emergency exemption that would allow strawberries to be sprayed with a pesticide not approved for the fruit in an effort to combat a unique white fly infestation.
The California Strawberry Commission and the Ventura County agriculture commissioner's office made the request to the state after discovering 150 acres of strawberries plagued with the greenhouse white fly on the Oxnard Plain. The flies have also shown up to a lesser extent elsewhere in California.
Gerry Robertson, operations manager with Reiter Brothers Inc., a large Oxnard strawberry grower, told The Times last week the company is facing crop losses of between 25% and 100%.
Strawberries are the second-most important cash crop in Ventura County, behind lemons.
The state Department of Pesticide Regulation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency must both approve the request before the pesticide known as imidacloprid can be applied, said Glenn Brank, spokesman for the state agency.
Imidacloprid--also known by the brand name Admire--has been approved since 1994 for use on such food crops as lettuce and cantaloupes, but is not registered for application on strawberries.
"It's not that unusual," Brank said of the requested exemption. "We do a number of these every year. . . . It's important to remember that this is registered for other uses. Even so, it cannot be used for this crop until health evaluations are conducted both by the DPR and the EPA."
The chemical is unregistered for use on strawberries simply because the greenhouse white fly isn't commonly found on the fruit, he said. The usual registration process is lengthy and costly.
So far, Reiter Brothers officials have used soap and water to clean the plants of the black blotches of mold the fly creates on the fruit and plant leaves, which makes them unmarketable to consumers. Farmers have also used a large "bug vac" to suck up the tiny flies.
The two agencies will take about 90 days to review the consequences of using the chemical and approval is not automatic, Brank said. Potential health effects, worker safety considerations and the amount of pesticide residue left on the fruit at the time of harvest must be considered.
The pesticide is considered to be a "reduced risk" chemical, he said.
Still, Lori Schiraga, project manager for the Environmental Defense Center's Central Coast Environmental Health Project in Ventura, which monitors pesticide use, said such an emergency action always raises questions.
"Any time you're talking about an emergency registration of a pesticide there is concern," she said. "Usually when pesticides go through these emergency regulations they're not subject to the rigorous scrutiny they would otherwise."
If the exemption is granted, it would come too late to save the Reiter Brothers crop, officials acknowledge. But the fear is the infestation could spread to other strawberries and other crops.
"If it goes into larger acreage of berries, then we'll have a real serious problem," Agriculture Commissioner Earl McPhail said. "Obviously, we're concerned with the large winter [strawberry] crop that starts planting in a week or two."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.