Spring is a tasty time of year on California's Central Coast, thanks to an abundance of seasonal strawberries from local growers.
The Central Coast, with its sunny days and fog-filled evenings, is the premier berry-growing region in the U.S., producing 80 percent of the country's strawberries.
Unfortunately, the spring berry season is a bittersweet time for Californians, because of the continued use of toxic, air-polluting soil fumigants by conventional farms.
The issue is unknown to most shoppers across the country … probably because the threat evaporates into the air, and therefore poses a threat primarily to farmers, farm workers, and the many people who live near berry farms.
Since 1983, Swanton Berry Farms has been growing strawberries organically in California's central coast farming region.
Swanton Berry is now joined by farmers large and small – including gigantic growers like Driscoll's – in a bustling organic strawberry business.
Specific pest control alternatives include the use of resistant cultivars, cultural practices (crop rotation, cover crops, natural fertilizer), biological controls (predatory insect species and bacteria), and physical methods such as soil solarization and anaerobic disinfestation.
Soil solarization involves heating the soil by covering it with a clear plastic tarp for four to six weeks, which kills a wide range of soil-based pests while increasing the availability of nitrogen and other essential plant nutrients.
Anaerobic disinfestation (ASD) works by incorporating cheap carbon sources into topsoil that's covered with plastic tarp then irrigated.
Soil solarization and ASD are proven to work on large-scale berry farms, according to the USDA Pacific-Area Program for Methyl Bromide Alternatives and the University of California's department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Strawberries are vulnerable to soil-born pests, diseases, and weeds, especially when they're grown in large “monoculture” plots that allow disease to spread easily among the fruit plants.
Growers large and small have demonstrated the viability of organic berry farming. (See our sidebar, “Berry good organic alternatives”.)
As organic strawberry farmer Jim Cochran told the Pesticide Action Network North America, “It's surprisingly easier to grow strawberries without chemicals than the industry would lead you to believe.”
We only sell certified-organic berries, and work hard to find and offer organic options whenever possible … almost all of our land-based foods are certified organic.
If a Vital Choice product is certified organic, we'll say so on its web-store page. Strangely, wild-caught seafood is not eligible for organic certification under current U.S. law.
Organic foods can cost much more than their conventional counterparts and people on tight budgets can find them unaffordable.
So it's critical to make conventional produce as safe as possible … for farmers, workers, and farm neighbors, as well as consumers.
The fight over toxic soil fumigants
Conventional strawberry growers rely on chemical fumigants to literally sterilize soil prior to planting … and methyl bromide has long been a top choice.
Chemical fumigants like methyl bromide generally do not get into the fruit, so strawberry consumers run little or no direct risk from its use.
But methyl bromide can sicken farmers, farm workers, and people in surrounding communities, so people and eco-organizations have protested the continued use of this harmful pesticide.
Still, methyl bromide remains in wide use, despite a 2005 international treaty banning it and other ozone-depleting chemicals, which allows for their use absent other “economically reasonable” alternatives.
California's Department of Pesticide Regulation approved an even more toxic alternative – methyl iodide – in December of 2010.
As an approved, “economically reasonable” alternative to methyl bromide, conventional berry farms began using it.
That move drew cries of protest, because methyl iodide is a recognized carcinogen and neurotoxin, also linked to miscarriages and thyroid problems.
In 2011, more than 35 scientists, including three Nobel laureates, urged the U.S. EPA to cancel all uses of methyl iodide, noting that a rigorously conducted analysis “… indicates that methyl iodide cannot be used safely as a soil fumigant and serves as a sound scientific basis for U.S. EPA to cancel all agricultural uses of methyl iodide.”
And the Department of Pesticide Regulation's hasty approval of methyl iodide flew in the face of this conclusion from its own Scientific Review Committee: “… adequate control of human exposure [to methyl iodide] would be difficult, if not impossible.”
Adding to safety concerns, the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) released evidence that chloropicrin – a carcinogenic chemical used in conjunction with methyl iodide– was found in every air sample taken near fields operated by Driscoll's, which is the nation's biggest seller of strawberries.
Fortunately, in March of 2012, the only supplier of methyl iodide announced that it would stop selling it, which may explain why the California Department of Pesticide Regulation finally bowed to public pressure and banned methyl iodide.
Farm workers and local residents can breathe a little easier now, but many other gaseous, hard-to-contain fumigants can still be used in strawberry fields.
In an encouraging move, California Governor Jerry Brown recently appointed former organic farmer Brian Leahy as the head of the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation.
Leahy is committed to finding a solution, and will spend $500,000 to explore safe alternatives, in addition to the organic methods already being used by growers of all sizes.
We can expect that researchers will develop new organic methods that will make organic fruit farming easier … in the meantime you can enjoy our delicious certified-organic berries with full peace of mind.