In case you haven’t heard, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) recently decided that the soil in which some 90% of the nation’s strawberries are grown may now be treated with the known carcinogen and neurotoxin methyl iodide, or MeI. How bad is this stuff? Well, for starters, it’s what scientists use when they want to create cancerous cells in the lab; it also causes brain damage and miscarriage, but who’s counting? Certainly not the DPR, who just rubber-stamped its use over the advice of their own scientific review panel, nor Arysta LifeScience Corp., the agri-chem company that requested the approval and manufactures the stuff under the perversely ironic “Midas” label. But if you really want to get your knickers in a twist, consider the stratospheric hypocrisy of the DPR, Arysta, and the subset of growers who rammed the approval through on a highly accelerated, “emergency” basis: MeI has been on the State of California’s own Prop 65 Safe Water and Toxic Enforcement Act list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity for nearly a quarter-century. By our very State! Since 1988!
You’ll also hear this crowd’s vociferous insistence that the stuff will only be used in small quantities and will not be applied directly to the fruit, in case that makes you feel better; that line of argument did not, however, sway the 54 scientists and chemists who pleaded on the deaf ears of the Bush-era EPA when it conferred its Federal blessing:
Agents like methyl iodide are extraordinarily well-known cancer hazards in the chemical community. Because of methyl iodide’s high volatility and water solubility, broad use of this chemical in agriculture will guarantee substantial releases to air, surface waters, and ground water, and will result in exposures for many people.
I don’t know about you, but words like “guarantee”, “substantial”, and “exposure” make me nervous, at least when we’re talking about deadly poison. Granted, I’m a nervous Jew and prone to over-reaction, but I’ve got company, from American Public Media to The Atlantic, because it only gets worse when you confront the hard data: The legal limits for exposure as set by the DPR are on the order of 1oo times the “safe” levels as determined by the DPR’s own scientists.
Reasonable people might wonder how this all happened, in plain view of otherwise sane strawberry eaters everywhere. As environmental studies professor and blogger Envo explains, much of the blame lies with the process itself, the asymmetric force of the few on the levers of governance, the willful ignorance of DPR director Mary-Ann Warmerdam, and our misguided moral certitude about the sanctity of farmers’ wallets; collectively, they support a regulatory calculus in which the henhouse is beholden entirely to foxes. But the backstory, which you won’t get from the PC Elite, is nearly as troubling, another unintended consequence of our monolithic endorsement of whatever sounds most “green” at the moment; an inconvenient truth perhaps, but the door to MeI was initially flung open, not by chemical companies or farm lobbyists, but by the mandated phaseout of the ozone-depleting pesticide methyl bromide, in accordance with the Clean Air Act and the Montreal Protocol. As the Cornell Extension Toxicology Network explains,
The methyl bromide phaseout is due to action under the Clean Air Act… [The] Clean Air Act does not contain a risk/benefit balancing process that would allow retention of essential or high benefit uses, nor does the listing and phaseout of ozone depleters depend on the availability of alternative products.
In other words, in all our well-meaning myopia, we rushed headlong into a deal with a devil we didn’t know, who – like, say, corn-based ethanol or bailout financing – has now come back to take a super-sized bite out of our strawberry-loving asses.
It’s not that our fully-paid-up government overseers have again failed us – that I cynically accept as the chronic inevitability of life in a bloated nanny state – it’s the brazenness with which they’ve done it, the wanton whoring to special interests at the expense of hard science and the humanity of those they ostensibly serve, that has me so riled. That they’ve done so aided and abetted by the economic illiteracy of the environmentalist agenda just makes me plain batty. [Note: Despite the “emergency” approval, fumigants are not typically applied during the winter months, so there may be a window of time during which either the EPA or Governor Brown can do something. Consider signing either this petition, or this.]