Controversial strawberry pesticide pulled from US

Methyl iodide has been used on California strawberries since December 2010 (AP Photo)Methyl iodide has been used on California strawberries since December 2010 (AP Photo)(AP) — The maker of a controversial strawberry pesticide said it's pulling all sales of the chemical from the U.S. market, surprising growers and environmentalists.

Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience Inc. said late Tuesday that it's 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 is based on the product's economic viability in the United States.

California regulators approved use of methyl iodide in December 2010 despite opposition from scientists and environmental and farmworker groups who claim it's highly toxic and can cause cancer. Environmentalists and public health advocates have since been pressuring Gov. Jerry Brown's administration to reconsider the decision.

An Alameda County Superior Court judge was expected to rule soon on a lawsuit by environmentalists who asked the state to vacate approval for the fumigant.

The chemical, which is injected into soil, kills bugs, weeds and plant diseases. It's used by some growers of tomatoes, peppers and other crops. In California, it was primarily targeted for use by the large strawberry industry.

Methyl iodide was widely seen as a replacement for another fumigant, methyl bromide, which is being phased out under international treaty because it depletes the Earth's ozone. The new fumigant was approved by the U.S. EPA and registered in 48 states.

Arysta officials said methyl iodide was applied "without a single safety violation" on 17,000 acres across the southeast — a tiny fraction of farmland — since it was first registered five years ago.

But the new fumigant never took off in California. Only five applications — all under five acres — took place since the state registered the pesticide. That included a single strawberry farmer using the chemical on a small test site.

Arysta officials said the company will continue to maintain the federal Midas label registered with the EPA. The company will also assess whether to maintain registration with the 48 states

Environmentalists who clamored to get the chemical off the market hailed the unexpected decision and attributed it to their political and legal pressure. They said the news comes 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."

It's unclear how the company's decision will affect the pending lawsuit. California Department of Pesticide Regulation spokeswoman Lea Brooks said Arysta has not requested voluntary cancellation of the fumigant's registration.

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 future implications of methyl iodide being pulled off the shelves while methyl bromide is being phased out.

In recent years, the Strawberry 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.

While alternatives are being developed, some growers are still relying on methyl bromide, the fumigant that's being phased out, while others have switched to fumigants such as chloropicrin and metam sodium, O'Donnell said.

Part of the reason why growers might have been reluctant to use methyl iodide, O'Donnell said, is because the regulations were so strict.

"People like to live where strawberries like to grow," O'Donnell said. "A lot of times, because of that, the rules excluded a lot of the acres from being fumigated."