The Sour Side of Strawberries

California is regulating a harmful pesticide used on strawberries and other crops, but does it go far enough?

Plump, juicy, and delicious, strawberries are everywhere nowadays. The red berries, which bring splashes of color to cereal, ice cream, and salads, are available in stores all year long. In fact, we eat twice as many strawberries as we did in 2002, thanks largely to pesticides (insects and weeds love the fruit, too).

Those chemicals, however, can make people living near strawberry farms sick, so the state of California, where the vast majority of strawberries are grown, is restricting how farmers use one pesticide in particular.

Chloropicrin is a potent fumigant applied to the soil before crops are planted. It kills microbes, fungi, weeds, insects, worms—you name it. During World War I, armies used it as an agent of chemical warfare; it would penetrate gas masks and make soldiers vomit, forcing them to remove their masks, which would then leave them vulnerable to other, even more harmful gases.

Chloropicrin’s military days are over, but farmers in California used more than nine million pounds of it in 2012, 70 percent on strawberry fields, to increase yields. In recent years, the amount applied to crops has been increasing because an alternative, methyl bromide, is being phased out under international restrictions on ozone-depleting chemicals. This month the California Department of Pesticide Regulation set limits on chloropicrin use to help protect those who work, live, and go to school near the fields.

"The right to farm does not include the right to harm," department director Brian Leahy told the Los Angeles Times.

At doses used for agriculture, chloropicrin can irritate eyes and lungs, exacerbate asthma, and might even cause cancer. Almost 800 cases of chloropicrin exposure were reported in California between 2002 and 2011—and since most of those who come in contact with the chemical are farm workers, there are sure to be many more unreported cases.

California, which produces 88 percent of the country’s strawberries, has the strictest pesticide regulations in the United States, but strawberry growers have been granted multiple exemptions to those rules. The industry says the phasing out of methyl bromide and further restrictions will raise produce prices, making it more difficult to turn a profit.

The new regulations, however, include 100-foot buffer zones, notifying neighbors before fumigating, and limiting application areas. They’re a step forward, but they still fall short, says Anne Katten, director of the pesticide and work safety project for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. “They don’t go far enough by any means,” she says. “We’ve called for eliminating soil fumigants by 2020. That’s what we think is needed and possible.”

Although the new rules would help keep neighbors of strawberry patches a little healthier and happier, even safer options are out there. Anaerobic soil deinfestation—a chemical-free method that involves covering a mix of water and organic matter with plastic to eradicate worms and diseases from soil—shows some promise, but since it’s not tried-and-true, strawberry farmers have been slow to adopt it, says Katten. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has given growers and researchers more than $3 million since 2012 to look into safe substitutes to fumigants.

In the meantime…well, how do you feel about raspberries?

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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