The future of many Southern fruit and vegetable growers may ride on whether the Bush administration succeeds in persuading an international committee to stop the total phaseout of a controversial pesticide by 2005 — one that many growers say they simply cannot do without.
Farmers say the pesticide, methyl bromide, used since the 1960s, provides them with the only effective way to deal with many common problems — soilborne fungal diseases, insects, nematodes and even some weeds.
Some scientists, on the other hand, say use of the chemical is helping punch a hole in the ozone. And until now, their views have prevailed.
A 15-year-old pact known as the Montreal Protocol calls for the total phaseout of methyl bromide in developed countries by 2005. And even though researchers have worked round the clock to find alternatives to the pesticide, the pickings are slim. This has left farmers with two very stark alternatives: either they bite the bullet and find some way to get by without methyl bromide or they lobby for critical use exemptions, which will enable them — hopefully, at least — to carry on until more viable alternatives to methyl bromide are developed.
With little hesitation, most producers have opted for the latter option, because without these exemptions many fear they may be forced out of farming altogether.
“Right now, the problem has been finding a single replacement for methyl bromide,” says Joe Kemble, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System horticulturist who works closely with fruit and vegetable growers. “Researchers are looking at several compounds as replacements, but many of these are toxic, both from the standpoint of long-term exposure and the immediate risk it poses to the applicator.”
Complicating matters is that applying these chemical alternatives often requires specialized equipment that, in many cases, costs a lot of money — money that must be paid out of already strained farm budgets. One added complication is that what works in one state doesn't always work in another, due to differences in soil types and other factors.
One non-chemical alternative is soil solarization, a method of heating soil by covering it with transparent plastic sheeting during hot periods to control soilborne diseases. Unfortunately for Deep South producers, growing conditions in the region are not well suited for the practice.
“It would only provide a limited effect,” Kemble says. “And down here, it would require you to be out of production during July and August — the hottest times of year and typically our most productive period in terms of fruits and vegetables. For most farmers, it would be just too big a hit on their pocketbooks.”
Yet another option is rotation. But, again, there's a hitch: many farmers face the challenge of finding additional land to rotate to, since all of their land is tied up in cultivation.
Newly developed less permeable plastic mulches, which trap methyl bromide for longer periods, allowing it to break down into its component parts before release into the atmosphere, is an option for some farmers. It may even help them get by with less use of the chemical. But yet again, the issue is cost.
“Margins have gotten tighter and tighter for farmers, especially in the fruit and vegetable industry — margins that get even tighter when another expense is added,” Kemble observes. “It comes down to a question of survival.”
Fifty-six requests for two-year exemptions for methyl bromide use beyond the 2005 deadline were filed with EPA, including appeals from strawberry and melon growers in Alabama and Florida. Early in February, the Bush administration announced that some of these requests, including those for strawberries and melons, have been submitted to the Ozone Secretariat of the United Nations, charged by the Montreal Protocol with the final decision.
For growers, the two-year extensions are just a way of buying time — time for researchers to develop adequate alternatives for methyl bromide. Without them, many face the end of their farming careers.
“There's no doubt that without these exemptions for adequate alternatives, many growers are going out of business,” Kemble says. “I even wonder now why some of them are staying in business, because they're not making any money, or they've just paid off their bank note.
“Even now, many just stick with it because they believe it's in their blood, and there's a purpose to what they do.”