The Berry and the Poison

Methyl bromide makes our fields fruitful; it will soon be banned, not because it’s toxic and it’s very toxic but because it attacks the ozone layer

Strawberries are big business in California: the state grows 80 percent of the country's crop. Farmers have the soil fumigant methyl bromide to thank for such bountiful harvests. Before fields in California were fumigated, an average acre yielded 1 to 5 tons of strawberries. Now, average yields are 20 to 25 tons and more. More than a hundred U.S. crops are abetted by the fumigant from California strawberries, to Florida tomatoes, to Tennessee tobacco.

A highly toxic gas, methyl bromide is injected into the soil before planting, wiping out nearly everything alive. It can also kill people but is safer than other fumigants in some respects because it leaves no toxic residue in the soil. Instead, it escapes the soil and rises into the atmosphere. Paradoxically, that property has become its downfall. Methyl bromide, it turns out, is an ozone depleting substance.

Production of the gas scheduled to be banned in the United States as of January 1, 2001 has already been frozen at 1991 levels. A global phaseout is to be completed ten years later, with exemptions for its use in developing countries. What that means, say farmers, is that America will be at a distinct disadvantage in the global marketplace unless the ban is lifted or an alternative to methyl bromide is found. The clash over methyl bromide, suggests author Jeff Wheelwright, is a high-stakes battle between agribusiness, environmentalists and health officials, involving politicians to the level of President Clinton. When the smoke clears, either methyl bromide or the ozone layer is bound to get a reprieve.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.