Mainely Tipping Points 26: Strawberries in Winter
STRAWBERRIES IN WINTER
It’s February, and in Maine, it’s bitter cold more often than not. We seek out heat and the warmth of the fiery color red. Not surprisingly, along comes St. Valentine’s Day on the 14th—a day set by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD to honor the martyred Roman Valentine, killed in 269 AD. This once-Christian holiday was likely overlaid onto a Roman mid-February pagan fertility celebration marking the beginning of spring and of the year’s agricultural calendar. The associative color red possibly derived from the use of sacrificial blood during the festivities.
Many of us are longing for spring, and in these mid-February days, along come red, luscious looking strawberries. These early heralds of “come spring” fruit are shipped to us here in the frozen north mostly from California, which grows “roughly 90 percent of all strawberries sold in the United States” (“Death by Strawberries,” change.org weekly, Nov. 29-December 6, 2010, http://www.askdepkewellness.com/2010/12/death-by-strawberries.html).
The idea of chocolate-covered strawberries makes your mouth water, doesn’t it? They’re the ultimate dessert for lovers in February. But, before you eat them or feed them to your loved ones, consider some cautions.
First, industrially raised strawberries come to you drenched with toxic chemical residues. Second, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) notes in its “dirty dozen” handout that rinsing “reduces but does not eliminate pesticides” (http://static.foodnews.org/pdf/EWG-shoppers-guide.pdf). And, third, the 2008-2009 Annual Report of the ,President’s Cancer Panel links exposure to pesticides (including insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) and fertilizers with the formation of cancer in humans. The report notes that parental exposure to pesticides can impact children prior to conception, in utero, and during childhood (43).
Strawberries are ranked third on the EWG’s 2010 Dirty Dozen list, which is formed after residue testing is completed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). EWG’s rankings reflect at least six factors, including the total amount of pesticide residues found and the total amount of different pesticides used.
Will Allen, in THE WAR ON BUGS (2008), notes that between 2000 and 2005, 97.3 percent of nectarines had pesticide residues, followed by 96.6 percent of peaches and 93.6 percent of apples. Strawberries ranked fourth. Peaches and apples, writes Allen, had up to 9 pesticides on a single fruit, and strawberries had up to 8 pesticides on single berries. Apples had the most residues of all with up to 50 pesticides found on samples. Strawberries had up to 38 pesticides (242).
Allen also cautions that very few states have mandatory pesticide use reporting, so there is massive underreporting of the amount of pesticides on our food. Because California does have a reporting requirement, Allen was able to determine that in 2004, California strawberry growers used just over 11 million pounds of pesticides on an estimated 33,200 acres, or 335.40 pounds per acre (243-244).
In 2004, notes Allen, strawberry growers in California used 184 different pesticides. But, 80.6 percent of these pesticides were confined to six chemicals. Four of these six chemicals accounted for 74.1 percent of use and are fumigants “designed to kill all soil life and are among the most dangerous pesticides.” These four fumigants amounted to about 249 pounds per acre of use.
Among these four fumigants is methyl bromide, or bromomethane, which was banned in 1987 by the Montreal Protocol because it depletes the ozone layer around earth. In total, 196 states have ratified this international treaty; President Reagan signed it in 1987.
Yet, twenty-four years later, our government is still allowing strawberry growers, principally in California and Florida, to use methyl bromide under “critical use” exemptions. According to Wikipedia, in 2004, over 7 million pounds of bromomethane were applied in California on tomatoes and strawberries, in ornamental shrub nurseries, and for the fumigation of ham/pork products” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bromomethane). The EPA is now accepting 2011 applications for 15 crops, to include “tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, cucurbits, orchard replants, and post-harvest uses (http://www.epa.gov/ozone/mbr/2010_nomination.html).
According to the EPA, methyl bromide is “highly toxic,” especially for application workers. Further, the EPA acknowledges that breathing it damages the lungs. And, once inside the body, it can have a devastating neurological impact and can impact the thyroid and the male testes, which affects reproduction. And guess what? Though methyl bromide has been used agriculturally since the 1930s and though it has always been recognized as being highly toxic, the EPA doesn’t know whether or not it causes cancer (http://www.epa.gov/ttnatw01/hlthef/methylbr.html).
Indeed, the President’s Cancer Panel notes that “approximately 40 chemicals classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as known, probably, or possible human carcinogens, are used in EPA-registered pesticides now on the market” (45).
Allen notes the following: “Methyl bromide…causes mutations, tumors, and monstrous birth defects. It is incredibly lethal in very small doses: consequently very few of its victims survive. Unlike the case for many other chemicals, pest resistance to methyl bromide has been low, with only a dozen or so organisms that have shown any tolerance to it after almost seventy years of continuous exposure. This lack of resistance is clearly due to the fact that the chemical kills almost all of the members of a population and leaves few if any resistant survivors” (234).
Allen demonstrates in THE WAR ON BUGS how the chemical industry replaces a discredited chemical with a new, largely untested chemical. The EPA approved the fumigant methyl iodide, or iodomethane, in 2007 at 193 parts per billion (ppb). At the time, fifty-four academic scientists and physicians, among them six Nobel laureates, wrote the EPA and asked for the chemical to be banned ((Jill U. Adams, “A Closer Look: Pesticides in strawberry fields,” June 28, 2010, The Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jun/28/health/la-he-closer-strawberries-pesticide-20100628; and “Death by Strawberries”).
On December 20, 2010, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) approved methyl iodide for use in strawberry fields, despite the fact that the eight-person independent scientific review panel the DPR appointed to review the chemical declared that it is highly toxic, that its use would expose large numbers of the public, and that it would be difficult to control” (Pesticide Action Network Action Alert, “Because PR can’t trump science, if you speak up,” http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DeathofCommonSense/message/1351). Additionally, methyl iodide is listed under California’s Proposition 65 as a carcinogen ((Julie Cart, “Farmworkers challenge approval of methyl iodide on strawberry fields,” The Los Angeles Times, January 3, 2011, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/greenspace/2010/11/methyl-iodide-pesticide-cancer-california.html?cid=6a00d8341c630a53ef013489abc225970c). The panel noted that methyl iodide can alter DNA and can contaminate groundwater. And, the panel cautioned that the lack of research on the chemical should give the DPR pause and that tests on animals link methyl iodide to miscarriages, cognitive impairment and thyroid toxicity (Cart).
The California DPR mandated 96 ppb, which is more than either the risk assessment scientists within the DPR or the panel recommended. The DPR scientists settled on 0.8 ppb, and panel member Edward Loechler, a molecular biologist at Brandeis University in Boston, said “we all thought, if anything, it should be lower.” Panel member Dr. Paul Blanc, head of the occupational and environmental medicine division at UC San Francisco said, “that’s not policy—that’s meddling with the science” (Adams).
Adams noted that Susan Kegley, who consults for The Pesticide Action Network (PAN), pointed to a study released in June about the air in Sisquoc, California. Levels of chloropicrine, a soil fumigant, were higher than either the EPA or the California DPR consider safe. (Treated fields are covered immediately with tarps.) Kegley noted that the same thing could happen with methyl iodide.
Shortly after the California DPR’s ruling, a group of environmental and community health organizations, representing agricultural workers, challenged the ruling in court on the grounds that it violates, among other laws, the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Birth Defects Prevention Act, and the Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act (Cart).
Strawberries, like all industrial monocrop cultures, are grown in sterile, toxic soil; are lacking nutrients; and will continue to require increasingly heavier toxic chemical loads. It is becoming abundantly clear that commerce has corrupted science and our regulatory mechanisms so that permitted chemical levels are harming humans—which is why the President’s Cancer Panel Report recommends reducing exposure to pesticides by choosing “food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.”
Our own, local, organic strawberries, available in June and for most of the summer, seem more than worth the wait.