I had promised that, once a week, I would present a small piece of food thought, theory, research or philosophy on why we are undertaking this challenge. This is both to convey our reasons for devoting so much of our time and energy to food, as well as to make sure we are really thinking about what we are doing. So, without further ado, I present my first piece.
When selecting a topic, I was hard pressed to decide on just one area. There is so much going on, it really makes it hard to choose and prioritize. So, I went with the idea of “do what you know.” Right now, I really know strawberries (I also know a fair amount about biology, biochemistry, chemistry and environmental studies). Strawberries have just finished up their season for 2010, and Laura and I acquired and froze down about four gallon freezer bags with ripe, divine berries for jams, sauces and other concoctions of the sweeter nature. All of our berries came from IPM or organic sources, and we picked a lot from the organic fields at Red Fire Farm, which you can see in this post on Strawberry Picking.
Strawberries seem an innocuous enough fruit, but are named as number 3 on the “Dirty Dozen” list if grown conventionally. One of the chemical fumigants used in conventional crops is Methyl Bromide. The National Pesticide Information Center (a remarkably bubbly and cheerful page) lists Methyl Bromide in its Fact Sheet as a “Restricted Use Pesticide” due to the acute toxicity of the chemical. The primary use of Methyl Bromide is as a soil fumigant, but is also used as an acaricide, fungicide, herbicide, insecticide, nematide and rodenticide. For strawberries, it is used as a soil fumigant. According to the fact sheet
“Manufacturers formulate methyl bromide as a pressurized liquid that converts to a gas upon pressure release. The
gas diffuses to fill air spaces in enclosed areas and penetrates cracks, crevices, and pores in wood and soil. To be
effective, a suitable concentration of methyl bromide must be contained at the application site for a sufficient period of
time. Pesticide applicators cover fumigation sites with plastic tarpaulins or tents to confine the gas. Methyl
bromide dissipates from the application site after the procedure is complete.”
The fact sheet then goes on to discuss the toxicity of Methyl Bromide exposure and the symptoms, which include all sorts of fun things like headaches, vomiting, visual disturbances, confusion, loss of coordination, slurred speech, paralysis, convulsions, coma and death. Throughout the sheet, the harmful aspects of the chemical, like it carcinogenic effects, are given a slight nod, but are cleverly hidden using words and phrases like “inconclusive”, “data not available”, “could not reach definitive conclusions”, and “may be associated with”. Having been in the sciences briefly, these set off red flags.
I especially liked the paragraph: “Researchers believe that methyl bromide is directly toxic to cells because it damages multiple cellular sites. Methyl bromide binds to DNA, lipids and proteins.” Generally, when I think of what causes cancer, it is something that messes with my DNA, though I’m not too hot on something that kills my cells, either.
The EPA had a different view of this chemical, acknowledging its toxic aspects, and adding:
“Methyl bromide is considered to be a significant ozone depleting substance (ODS) by atmospheric scientists.”
Apparently, it is such a chemical of concern, that it was included in the Montreal Protocol, which takes steps to reduce the use of ozone-depleting substances, including Methyl Bromide. At this point in time, 191 countries are now Parties to the treaty.
Though I was having a hard time finding any data on current levels of use of Methyl Bromide in the US, most resources, including a 2005 article from E: The Environmental Magazine, point out that the US has been using a loophole in the protocol to continue the use of Methyl Bromide at remarkably high levels. The Pesticide Action Network of North America’s page on Methyl Bromide has a lot of great resources, including 2008 levels of use in California. The EPA has a list of “Critical Use Exemptions“, listing the various uses of Methyl Bromide that are allowable under a loophole that allows for continued use if:
“(i) The specific use is critical because the lack of availability of methyl bromide for that use would result in a significant market disruption; and
(ii) there are no technically and economically feasible alternatives or substitutes available to the user that are acceptable from the standpoint of environment and public health and are suitable to the crops and circumstances of the nomination.”
Again, the Pesticide Action Network of North America’s page on Methyl Bromide has a lot of great resources on alternatives, and how it is felt that studies on the economic feasibility of moving away from Methyl Bromide was skewed.
Whew, that is a lot of controversy for a little berry. It keeps going on and on, a long, tangled web information about the alternatives to Methyl Bromide, the current practices of organic farming that reduce crop viability, etc. Read “Organic Strawberries are a Hard Sell at Times” for a good overview of those issues.
I will say this, though. An important aspects to me for organic strawberries (outside of cancer, death, ozone depletion, etc), is the environment. Trite, perhaps, but true. When I was picking strawberries at Red Fire Farm, I took a break, sat back to enjoy a berry, and saw, not five feet from me, one of the most beautiful little birds.
A yellow warbler, small enough to fit in my hand, bouncing around in the strawberry patch, picking insects and nematodes from the leaves and ground, taking many of it away to a possible nest somewhere. It was a lovely moment, where you know that somewhere, a naked baby bird is benefiting from Ryan and Sarah’s choice not to use a fumigant to kill everything but the plant. I am no farmer, so if Red Fire Farm can feed hundreds of families of humans while also supporting heaven knows how many families of animals, that’s an amazing feat. One I can dedicate my efforts towards, thinking of a little yellow bird every time I eat a strawberry.