California is the leading producer of strawberries in the U.S. In 2013, more than 2.3 billion pounds of strawberries were harvested annually. Of the 16.3 percent exported, Canada imports the majority of California’s fresh and frozen strawberry produce. So do California’s new pesticide rulings make these treasured sweet berries safe to eat? Unfortunately not.
California strawberries are grown in temperate coastal regions, like Monterey, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties. The population in these areas has grown considerably pushing residents closer to agricultural fields where they face increasing health risks from pesticides drifting into neighbourhoods, schools and work sites.
Strawberries are the most chemically intensive crop in California. One of the many chemicals that are used by strawberry growers is chloropicrin, a pesticide that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “an irritant with characteristics of a tear gas”. Growers have used the pesticide for decades but its use has increased in recent years as an alternative to methyl bromide, which is being phased out under an international treaty. Growers applied more than 9 million pounds (4.08 million kg) of chloropicrin in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. However from 2002 to 2011, state records show 787 people suffered symptoms including watery eyes, irritated lungs, coughing and headaches as a result of exposure to chloropicrin gas. Advocacy groups say the number of incidents is probably higher because many illnesses are not reported.
New rules now establish wider buffer zones of up to 100 feet around fields where the pesticide is applied. Growers will be restricted to fumigating 40 acres a day unless they use stronger tarps to prevent the chemical from drifting away. Growers are also required to give the state 48 hours’ notice before fumigating and to notify surrounding homes and businesses in Spanish and English.
“The right to farm does not include the right to harm,” said Brian Leahy, director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation. “Part of the cost of doing business is putting protective measures in place that ensure that no one is getting hurt.”
Anne Katten, who monitors pesticide and worker safety for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, maintains the buffers are not large enough. “The long-term solution is to phase out the use of chloropicrin and other high-toxicity soil fumigants and move to alternative measures to control soil pests that are safer and more sustainable.”
While the new regulations are a step in the right direction, current laws and regulations are still not doing enough. Strawberries are one of Nature’s most potent packages of health-defending antioxidants. But when the Pesticide Action Network did an analysis of pesticide residues using USDA data, it found 54 different pesticide residues among strawberry samples. The testing turned up nine known or probable carcinogens, 24 suspected hormone disruptors, 11 neurotoxins, 12 developmental or reproductive toxins, and 19 honeybee toxins. Traces of fungicides captan and pyraclostrobin turned up on more than half of strawberry samples tested.
A solid reason to buy organic or wait until they are in season.