Strawberries are a lucrative cash crop, ideal for the mild and cool mediterranean climate of the Central Coast. Soil fumigants like methyl bromide increase yields while risking the health of farm laborers and locals exposed to the carcinogen. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation is reviewing the registration of a new pesticide for strawberry production, methyl iodide, but opponents have criticized the new chemical as even more carcinogenic than methyl bromide. Photo by Molly Solomon.
With the help of soil fumigants like methyl bromide increasing yields, the Central Coast produces 88 percent of strawberries in the United States. Strawberry production in the Santa Cruz and Watsonville area is one of the highest per land area in the country. Local farms are visible from over 4,000 feet in the air. Photo by Prescott Watson.

Strawberry production on the Central Coast is part of a $2 billion industry.

Of all the strawberries grown in the United States, 88 percent of the crop is grown in California, with roughly 50 percent coming from the Watsonville, Salinas and Santa Cruz areas alone.

In the next few months, the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) is poised to make a decision on the registration of a new pesticide called methyl iodide. While the Environmental Protection Agency has already approved the chemical at the federal level, local agricultural communities are demonstrating a resistance to the new pesticide at the state level because of its dangerous health effects on schools and residential neighborhoods nearby.

Ramiro Medrano is a grassroots organizer with the Brown Berets, a youth empowerment and education program in Watsonville. He is part of an effort to educate the local community, which largely comprises farm workers and their families, about the new pesticide.

“The students are the ones who are most interested in this, because many of them go to school near these fields,” Medrano said. “We tell them about the dangers, and they feel the responsibility to take this on through educating their parents and their student bodies about pesticides and methyl iodide.”

If approved, methyl iodide will replace the widely-used methyl bromide, a chemical that is being phased out due to its deleterious effects on the ozone layer, putting it in violation of the international Montreal Protocol of 1992. Both the new and old pesticides are soil fumigants, which means they are applied to the soil before the crop is planted in order to sterilize it and kill any weeds, organisms or other organic matter that might impede growth of the crop.

Critics cite the potential health effects of the new pesticide as the reason it should not be registered. Methyl iodide is a known carcinogen under Proposition 65, according to a report compiled by Susan E. Kegley, a consulting scientist for the Pesticide Action Network. It is four times more neurotoxic than methyl bromide, and up to 3.5 times more acutely toxic than methyl bromide.

The DPR commissioned two teams of scientists, some from within the department itself, along with eight independently contracted scientists, to review the toxicity of the chemical. California Watch, which is part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, reported that after receiving the scientists’ findings, the DPR then set the level of exposure 196 times higher than what their own scientists had recommended.

The California Strawberry Commission (CSC), which is based in Watsonville, represents a conglomeration of 600 growers, shippers and processors in California. Its members include both conventional and organic farmers, who pay 3.5 cents per tray of strawberries to fund research.

Carolyn O’Donnell, the communications director for the CSC, explained that the commission is waiting for the DPR to “complete their regulatory process” before taking a stance on methyl iodide. However, she did say that of the $13 million in research that the CSC invested in finding an alternative to methyl bromide, much of it was devoted to non-pesticide alternatives.

“The commission is looking into the future,” O’Donnell said. “Research devoted to farming without fumigants gives strawberry growers more options for sustainable ways to grow strawberries. There are a variety of potential solutions, and they are not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Local assembly member Bill Monning is opposed to the registration of methyl iodide, and he is working with the community in the Watsonville area to prevent registration of the chemical. Monning’s dedication to this issue comes from his former work as an attorney for the United Farm Workers’ Union, in which he was involved in litigation on pesticide-poisoning cases.

Monning explained that the DPR was designed to be a bit more free-standing than the federal Department of Food and Agriculture, but it still has various interests to represent and sometimes does not take real-world farming practices into account.

“The department is charged with making objective and rational decisions based on science, but it’s also a balancing act of balancing the interests of agriculture and public safety concerns,” Monning said. “You can have certain standards and requirements listed on a label, but in the field, people don’t always follow the requirements. You have wind, you have tarps that fail. You have to factor in human error at some level.”

The education effort in Watsonville that Medrano and Monning are part of includes community town halls, pesticide awareness clubs in high schools, petitions and an effort to get local school boards and city councils to adopt a resolution formally opposing the registration of the chemical.

Last week, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District was the first school board to adopt a resolution against the registration of methyl iodide. School leaders emphasized the need for more scientific research on the pesticide before it is used in fields that abut numerous Watsonville school grounds.

While the school board’s actions represent a victory, Medrano said, he expressed some frustration at the fact that those most affected most by the issue — farm workers themselves — are the hardest to reach.

“A couple of farmers at our last forum showed us their hands, and some of them didn’t have any [finger]nails because of exposure to pesticides. That, or their skin was very deteriorated because of the same exposure,” Medrano said. “A lot of them, unfortunately, also have a very low education. Unless we go out there and inform them, they don’t know much about the danger.”

When it comes to an alternative to methyl bromide and methyl iodide, both Monning and Medrano stated that they personally believe organic agriculture is the answer. However, Medrano conceded, it is probably not possible to produce the amount of strawberries grown on the Central Coast without the use of fumigants.

“I don’t know if that’s a bad thing,” Medrano said. “A lot of these environmental agriculture jobs are very dangerous to the workers and the community.”

Steve Gliessman is a UC Santa Cruz environmental studies professor whose work as a farmer, author and teacher is centered on agroecology and sustainable food systems.

Gliessman said that while implementing more sustainable methods of farming strawberries might mean a reduction in overall yield, it doesn’t mean the loss of a lucrative industry altogether. He said the focus should be on more, smaller growing operations and fewer large ones, as well as selecting more resilient varieties of the crop to grow.

“The varieties of strawberries that have been used since methyl bromide have zero [natural] resistance to diseases,” Gliessman said. “Growers have been selecting varieties based on the [quantity of] fruit they produce, and not on their ability to resist disease, because they didn’t need it.”

Gliessman cited the enormous economic investment that strawberry farmers take on as part of the reason why using pesticides in production can be so tempting to a grower.

“There is so much risk in strawberry production: $25,000 to $30,000 per acre,” he said. “Almost half of that is pre-harvest. That’s a lot of money — you gotta get that back somehow.”