FARMERS HOPE TO BUY TIME WITH METHYL BROMIDE EXEMPTIONS
AUBURN, Ala. - 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 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
"Right now, the problem has been finding a single replacement for
methyl bromide," says Dr. 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 nonchemical 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
"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."