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Controversial strawberry pesticide taken off the market

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Posted: Friday, March 23, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 10:54 am, Wed Jan 30, 2013.

A pesticide used mostly on strawberries is being pulled from U.S. markets by its Japanese manufacturer after harsh criticism that the product is toxic and causes cancer.

Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience Inc. said late Tuesday that it was immediately suspending the sale, marketing and production of all formulations of the fumigant Midas, or methyl iodide, in the U.S.

The company said the decision was based on the product's economic viability in the United States.

Methyl iodide was used to control soil pathogens and weed seeds before strawberries, peppers, tomatoes or similar plants went in the ground. It is not sprayed on the plant. California regulators approved its use in December 2010 despite opposition from a wide range of scientists and environmental and farmworker groups.

Those scientists concluded that use of the fumigant would result in acute public health risks because tests on rats and rabbits have shown that exposure to the chemical causes thyroid cancer, miscarriages and damage to the nervous system. Scientists also found it can pollute air and water.

Environmentalists who clamored to get the chemical off the market hailed the unexpected decision to end sales and said it came just in time for spring strawberry season.

"This is a pleasant surprise and a huge victory, especially for rural residents and farmworkers across the country," said Paul Towers of Pesticide Action Network. "Arysta saw the writing on the wall and chose to pull their cancer-causing methyl iodide product."

The strawberry industry was also surprised by the decision, said Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission. Growers are concerned, O'Donnell said, about the implications of methyl iodide being pulled from shelves while methyl bromide is being phased out.

Local growers were glad to have an alternative to use after its predecessor, methyl bromide, was found to be depleting the ozone layer, said Scott Hudson San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner.

But methyl iodide was only used twice in the county and it had been highly restricted by the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Bruce Blodgett, San Joaquin Farm Bureau executive director, is not pleased at seeing the product removed from the market.

"This was our only helpful replacement for methyl bromide," said Blodgett in an email.

With methyl iodide off the table, the ag industry is back to square one. Now growers have to find something else to prep their soil for the upcoming season. Other fumigants don't seem to be as effective in controlling soil pathogens and weed seeds as both methyl bromide and methyl iodide, according to Hudson.

"We want to make sure neighbors and workers are safe, and we need to have a tangible product our guys can use. The question is, 'OK, now what? Now where do we go? What do our guys need?'" said Patterson.

That research is in progress.

In recent years, the commission has poured more than $12 million into university research to look at alternatives to fumigation, such as crop rotation, eliminating soil pathogens by using natural sources of carbon and sterilizing soil with steam.

And earlier this month, the commission and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation announced a research partnership looking for alternatives to fumigants. The $500,000, three-year project is will focus on growing strawberries in peat, tree bark or other non-soil substances that are disease-free.

Associated Press writer Gosia Wozniacka contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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