METHYL BROMIDE EXTENSION UNLIKELY
Decision quashed the hopes of U.S. fruit and vegetable growers but may even have sealed the fate of some.
AUBURN, Ala., -- A recent decision to refuse an American
request for continued use of a standby farm chemical has
not only quashed the hopes of U.S. fruit and vegetable
growers but may even have sealed the fate of some.
Opponents of the chemical, methyl bromide, contend it
is a major contributor to ozone depletion. But many
farmers say essential to their long-term economic survival.
Under the terms of a 15-year-old environmental treaty
known as the Montreal Protocol, methyl bromide would be
banned from farm use in industrialized countries by 2005.
Claiming no adequate alternatives are available to replace
methyl bromide, U.S. farm groups petitioned for a temporary
exemption. But at a technical meeting in Nairobi, Kenya,
on Nov. 14, negotiators representing the European Union and
many poor countries refused to exempt the United States from
the scheduled phase-out.
Methyl bromide, a fumigant used to control insects,
nematodes, weeds and pathogens in several crops, is considered
by many scientists to be a principal ozone-depleting substance.
Many producers, on the other hand, consider it an essential farm chemical
-- one that is simply irreplaceable in some instances.
"There are substitutes that work in some cases," said Dr. Joe
Kemble, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System horticulturist
and Auburn University professor of horticulture. "But in
terms of horticultural crops --- vegetables and turf, for example --
there really are no alternatives."
While conceding that methyl bromide is no cure-all, Kemble
said it "deals with about 90 percent of the issues growers face in
turning out their crops." Replacing methyl bromide with more
expensive alternative chemicals, he said, will add hundreds more
per acre in operating costs at a time when many growers are
having a hard enough time keeping up with overseas competition.
"When a farmer has to turn around and spend another $100 or $200
or so an acre on chemicals, it either means that he's not going to
be in business anymore or that he's going to reach the point
where there's very little left to support his family. Everything
he makes will have to go back into to supporting the operation."
"It's just helping him stay afloat year after year, and,
ultimately, that's just not the way to do business."
Supporters of the ban point to European farmers as proof of how
quickly the alternatives can be adopted.The vast majority of these
producers, they argue, would not return to methyl bromide even if they
could. Besides, they contend, the exemptions not only would prevent
steady progress in healing the ozone layer but would discourage U.S.
farmers from adopting safer products.
Kemble, for one, doesn't buy it.
"Safer? Safer for whom?" he asked. "Some of the alternatives
may be safer for the ozone, but they're actually more toxic
for the people who apply these products. They require self-contained
breathing apparatuses and all the other things that are
associated with it.
"Methyl bromide isn't the safest farm chemical, but compared
with these alternatives, you're not required to wear any special
gear or breathing apparatus to apply it."
As for the ozone-depleting properties associated with methyl
bromide, Kemble said a number of technologies are now available
that enable farmers to more effectively trap it in the soil long
enough to break down before it reaches the atmosphere.
New plastic mulches, for example, which are less permeable
than similar products, have been shown to be effective in
trapping methyl bromide in the soil and keeping it there.
While the Nairobi decision technically amounted to a deferment
and not a final decision on whether to grant the exemptions,
Kemble fears the handwriting already is on the wall.
Ironically, he said, many fruit and vegetable growers probably
could weather the higher costs if American consumers were willing
to pay more for produce. The problem is that most aren't.
"We simply can't point accusing fingers only at farmers,"
Kemble said. "Farmers are as environmentally conscious as the
next person -- more so, in fact -- but they're expected to
turn out the least expensive products despite these higher
Kemble also said the argument that European growers have
easily adjusted to the ban is misleading.
"The fact is, European farmers have subsidies, while our
farmers don't. Americans need to understand that. The
issues are not as cut and dry as most people think. Lots of
livelihoods are riding on this. If American consumers demand
a safer environment, they're either going to have to pay
more for their food until new alternatives can be found or
cut losses for their farmers.
"Otherwise, you're going to see fewer and fewer American farmers
Source: Dr. Joseph Kemble, Alabama Cooperative Extension
System Horticulturist and Auburn University Professor of