The Curse of the Perro

FRUTA DEL DIABLO: My guess is UCSB chemistry professor Thomas Bruice just doesn’t like strawberries. What other explanation could there possibly be? Bruice was one of the 54 world-class chemists and biochemists who signed a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency late last month, urgently warning the agency not to approve the use of methyl iodide, a potent soil fumigant, necessary for the cultivation of strawberries. Given that California has emerged as the epicenter of the strawberry universe-and the Central Coast is the epicenter of that-the issue is hardly academic. Naturally, the EPA approved the chemical anyway. But in deference to Bruice’s scholarly pedigree-and that of the other 53 concerned scientists-the EPA put the chemical on a short leash, issuing methyl iodide only a one-year approval.

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Unlike five of the brainiacs who signed the letter, Bruice-the “i” in his name comes from Scottish ancestors who saw fit not to remove it back in 1660 when the rest of the Bruce clan was desperately trying to mainstream-has yet to win a Nobel Prize for his work. But he’s won everything but. To be fair, I forgot to ask Bruice about any latent hostility he might hold toward the sunny strawberry when I intruded upon his dinner hour with an unsolicited phone call Tuesday evening. Disarmingly gracious and blunt, Bruice distracted me by raising other concerns. “This is very bad. You don’t want this being used,” he said of methyl iodide. “People will get killed.”

The problem with methyl iodide is not merely that it causes nerve damage and fills your lungs up with fluid if you happen to breathe it in. Or that it induces thyroid cancer for those subjected to longer-term exposure. It’s also extremely volatile and reactive stuff, which is geek-speak for the fact that methyl iodide mixes with just about anything it comes in contact with and then changes it. As a rule, these changes drastically shorten the lifespan of the organisms being altered. Chemists who work with the stuff do so only under the strictest of lab conditions. They know if even the smallest amount gets on them, it could scramble their own DNA. But the field conditions under which strawberry growers will inject this potent industrial toxin and cancer hazard into their soil-at hundreds of pounds per acre-do not come close to approximating laboratory conditions. The opportunity and incentive for sloppiness and disregard is way too great. And accidents do happen. Once this stuff seeps into the water table or goes airborne-which Bruice and the other scientists insist will occur-it won’t just be illegal immigrant farmworkers who will suffer from the exposure. It will be all of us.

All this, Bruice said, has been well understood for 75 years. In fact, he said, second-year chemistry majors who don’t know this flunk out. It’s that basic. Even so, the EPA insists methyl iodide is safe. From this, Bruice concluded, “We have people who run things in government who don’t know their butt from a flat rock.” No doubt that’s a colorful colloquialism from the old country, where strawberries won’t grow.

But maybe there’s more than mere stupidity at play here. And maybe it goes deeper, too, than the Bush administration’s ongoing war with scientific opinion that does not conform to its pre-ordained political agenda. The company that won EPA approval is Arysta LifeScience North America Corporation, which does all its manufacturing in Tokyo, Japan. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but it’s worth noting that Arysta’s former CEO, Elin Miller, was named an EPA regional director for the northwest last year. Normally, I’d say such a connection didn’t pass the proverbial smell test, but methyl iodide, being odorless, can sneak up on you before you smell a thing.

The reason the strawberry growers need a new chemical killer is because the one they’ve been using for the past 50 years-methyl bromide-has been internationally outlawed. Not only does methyl bromide effectively kill the tiniest of nematodes lurking beneath the soil to mess with the strawberry’s fragile root system, but it causes cancer and birth defects, too. Not only that, it also blasts holes in the ozone layer and contributes to global warming.

During World War I, before civilized society came to frown on chemical warfare, methyl bromide was deployed to the same deadly purpose as mustard gas and chlorine. Without methyl bromide, the modern strawberry industry would never have evolved. But thanks to this handy chemical, plus a plentiful supply of cheap Mexican labor and the sage advice of University of California scientists who figured out how to engineer sturdier crush-proof berries that could survive the truck trips to market, California leads the world in the production of strawberries. Strawberries have emerged as the equivalent of crack cocaine in the fruit world. They’re tasty, nutritious, non-fattening, and clearly addictive. Industry surveys reveal that strawberries are the one fruit most people say they could eat every day, and America’s per capita consumption of the devilish berries has risen accordingly.

It also turns out people who eat strawberries are perceived as fun-loving, sunny extroverts. Little wonder then that in Santa Barbara County-known for its sunny, fun-loving population-strawberries are ranked as the number-one cash crop (grossing $230 million last year), way ahead of broccoli and wine grapes. This, of course, is raw fiction because marijuana generates more cash than strawberries and all other crops combined. But currently, Santa Barbara has 6,200 acres of strawberries under cultivation, meaning we have 6,200 acres of land that gets injected with 362,000 pounds of deadly fumigant per year. Of course they tarp the land afterward and keep people away for five days. But accidents do happen. Sometimes when the strong winds blow, tarps fly off. That’s exactly what happened just last weekend at a strawberry field located outside Santa Maria. The good news, I suppose, is the State of California has yet to approve methyl iodide as a safe replacement for methyl bromide. At the very least, that process should buy us a temporary reprieve.

In the meantime, I’m going down to the supermarket to buy Thomas Bruice a basket of the reddest, ripest, juiciest strawberries I can find. After the short shrift he received at the hands of the EPA, he’ll need something to get the bad taste out of his mouth.


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