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Strawberry Fare

by Ann Cleary


The Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded a woman from British Columbia, Melanie Miller of Enza Integrated Fruit Production, for identifying substitutes for methyl bromide, a pesticide fumigant currently used in growing strawberries, in the course of her research on ozone layer protection. Enza is a marketer of New Zealand apples and pears, and by 1998 New Zealand will no longer use methyl bromide as an orchard replacement fumigant.

It is ironic that methyl bromide will be eliminated for the sake of the ozone layer instead of its agricultural use, against which there has been considerable opposition for some years. It will be interesting to find out what the substitute for it is. However, despite much delay as a result of the fall Montreal Protocol on the Environment, methyl bromide is to be banned. It is to be phased out in the U.S. by the year 2001.

Methyl bromide has been used in the huge strawberry fields of California to produce big and beautiful berries that also appear in Canadian markets where they are snapped up by consumers in no time flat.

Currently the fields are prepared in long rows 20 feet (6 m) wide. Then methyl bromide is mechanically injected into the soil which is immediately covered by plastic. Workers or machines bury the outer sides of the plastic in the earth to hold it all down. The methyl bromide, sometimes mixed with other lethal pesticides, kills off all living things under the plastic, including weeds, to create a virtually sterile soil. The strawberry plants themselves, treated as annuals, are sown in separate areas; when ready, they are planted out in the sterilized beds and fed with commercial fertilizers and chemicals that result in large, luscious berries for strawberry teas, strawberry socials, fetes, trade shows and so on.

Needless to say, the phasing out of crops treated this way is causing consternation to California growers and to some Florida growers as well. Perhaps they will have to resort to organically grown berries in season. Even flowers in greenhouses are grown with methyl bromide preparation, with difficulty, as putting the stuff into the soil in confined spaces is not easy. The highly skilled operators who carry the tanks of the gas have to wear full protection, as do others who work closely with it. Sometimes the gas escapes from the fields, affecting people and houses close by, but mostly it ascends straight up to the ozone layer where it is thought to promote climate change.

At strawberry time, hundreds of workers toil for long periods at minimum wage picking and carrying heavy loads to the loading sheds. Even long-time workers don’t get more than $6 per hour. Many Californians are boycotting local strawberries because of this adverse labor practice. Even some Canadian importers are following suit. Owners are protesting the new regulations and needless to say the prospect of the loss of millions of dollars.

For all things there is a season. It is time we learned to enjoy the season, however short, for these big risk-benefit schemes give only large benefit to a few and little to those who run the risks. And the risks can well affect the universe!


Copyright 1997. Ann Cleary.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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