As director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, Helliker allowed some growers to ignore the restrictions for a pesticide called 1,3-Dichloropropene, which the state believed caused cancer. In 2002, Helliker dismantled the strict oversight designed seven years earlier to protect Californians from cancer, opening the door to 12 years of nearly unfettered 1,3-D access as its use spread to populated areas near schools, homes and businesses. The decision put people in more than 100 California communities at a higher risk of cancer, according to interviews with former state scientists and documents obtained by The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Growers rely on heavy amounts of some of the most dangerous pesticides – a class called fumigants – to deliver the fruit year-round at an affordable price for consumers. Because strawberries like to grow where people like to live, in the perpetual spring of coastal California, growers often use the pesticides near schools, homes and businesses. State public health officials classify fumigants like methyl bromide, 1,3-D, metam sodium and chloropicrin as among the most potentially dangerous to workers and neighbors.
The health and environmental problems that come with those pesticides have threatened the foundation of a $2.6 billion industry that provides Americans with 9 out of 10 strawberries they eat. The fruit is fragile and land is expensive, so growers pump the soil with fumigants to wipe out most life below the surface, a sort of insurance policy against future plagues.
Even though strawberries take up less than 1 percent of the total farmland in California, they account for at least 8 percent of pesticides used in the state. The three zip codes in the state with the heaviest pesticide use fall within two prime strawberry-growing counties, Ventura and Monterey.
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To understand how these gases ended up getting injected into the soil to help grow fruit, we have to go back to an old chemical weapon that British troops called “vomiting gas.” During World War I, armies used a chemical called chloropicrin to penetrate the gas masks worn by soldiers fighting across Europe. The soldiers would throw up, forcing them to pull off their masks and expose themselves to other toxic chemicals. After the war, the U.S. had a lot of the gas left over and nothing to do with it.
The surplus was shipped to Hawaii, where the pineapple industry tried using the chemical to eradicate troublesome worms in the soil. The results were dramatic – an acre treated with chloropicrin yielded 20 more tons of pineapple than an untreated acre. The Hawaii innovation marked the beginning of a new genre of pesticides. Researchers in other industries conducted more studies searching for gaseous chemicals that could wipe out pests in the soil and leave a clean foundation to plant crops.
Growers had a new tool to fight a persistent problem. In the 1950s, scientists at the University of California experimented with chloropicrin on strawberry fields, using hand-held guns to inject hundreds of pounds of the chemical into an acre of soil. Within 10 years, nearly every strawberry field in the state was being treated with a combination of chloropicrin and another fumigant, methyl bromide.
By the mid-1960s, strawberry growing had changed dramatically. The University of California and Driscoll’s, a major grower, focused on new chemicals.With those breakthroughs and the new chemicals, California strawberry farmers had doubled the amount of berries a single acre could produce.
The Salinas Valley’s productivity is attributed to “its deep, rich agricultural soils, mild Mediterranean maritime climate, and availability of water for irrigation. The climate is characterized by warm, dry summers, and cool, wet winters. During the summer, high temperatures in the inland Central Valley create a low-pressure gradient pulling moisture off the ocean, with fog in the Salinas Valley for much of the summer period. Vegetable growers in Salinas typically grow two cash crops a year, selecting from five main taxa lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, or spinach.”
However, as demand for healthier food and more environmentally sound production increases, growers might be required to “go green.” Smukler and others study in their 2008 article Transition to Large-scale Organic Vegetable Production in the Salinas Valley, presents that California demonstrates the feasibility of large-scale producers to transition to organic practices in a manner that was conducive to both production goals and environmental quality, i.e., increased soil C pools, low soil nitrate, and absence of synthetic pesticides.
Organic agricultural production is undergoing a rapid transformation as the demand for healthier food and more environmentally sound production increases globally. Large producers are adopting organic practices to meet the growing demand for organic foods. “As the scale of production increases, the strategies employed to grow food without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are expected to change as will the challenges in making the transition from conventional to organic production.”
“In Monterey County in 2005, 3821 Mg of organically approved and conventional synthetic pesticides were applied to 631,749 ha of farmland (CDPR, 2007) and much of the waterways and groundwater in the Salinas Valley are contaminated with either synthetic pesticides (Anderson et al., 2003) or nitrate (Vengosh et al., 2002). From 2003 to 2006, the area of farmland in organic production in Monterey County increased from 5447 to 7024 ha of farmland.”