U.S. consumers love their strawberries, and demand for the charming little red fruits just keeps on growing. In California, strawberry production is a $2.6 billion industry that provides around 90 percent of the nation’s supply. But according to a chilling new investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), it all rests on a very shaky foundation of excessive pesticide use based on a system proposed by the pesticide manufacturers themselves.

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Strawberries are a delicate crop, but the returns on them make the effort worthwhile due to high consumer demand. However, the Californian strawberry industry’s success is only possible due to the enormous amount of fumigants (gaseous pesticides) that are pumped into the soil every year. In order to eliminate the risk of soil-borne diseases and pests damaging crops, each year conventional farmers inject fumigants into the fields to kill off pretty much every living thing down to a depth of around one foot. The trouble is, the fumigants off-gas – and these lingering toxic clouds are cause for concern, since strawberries are very frequently grown in close proximity to residential areas. Since 2002, Californian farmers have been allowed to exceed safety cap levels of fumigant use for the chemical 1,3-D, placing workers and nearby residents at higher risk of developing cancer.

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One of the chemicals used, methyl bromide, was banned under the Montreal Protocol in 1987 on the grounds that it was a major cause of the depletion of the ozone layer. Californian strawberry farmers were able to argue that discontinuing the use of the chemical would cause them economic hardship, so they were allowed special dispensation to continue using it. However, in an effort to find alternatives, the industry has come to rely more heavily on another fumigant—1,3-D, marketed under the name of Telone. The state of California believes that this chemical poses an increased risk of developing cancer in humans, but it is now the third most used pesticide in the state according to the CIR report. Worse, growers are allowed to exceed annual usage recommendations issued by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) through a model of usage credits and “banking,” the safety of which has been called into question by the department’s own scientists.

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Curiously enough, the credit system was proposed by Dow AgroSciences, the manufacturer of 1,3-D, and approved by the then director of the DPR, Paul Helliker, in 2002. The CIR report explains: “Because the state’s regulations average cancer risk over a lifetime, Dow and state regulators said, it’s fine for people to be exposed to more 1,3-D in some years as long as it evens out over time.” The basic science of this approach to the risk has been disputed by a number of scientists at the DPR, who point out that a spike in exposure creates a different set of risks than a lifetime average. CIR adds, “The state’s regulations accept that over a lifetime, 1,3-D could cause one additional cancer case for every 100,000 people.” One hundred Californian communities have been exposed to higher than recommended annual limits of 1,3-D since 2002. Six of those communities have exceeded the limit every year. They could be forgiven for wondering when their exposure levels are going to ‘even out.’

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While this is all alarming enough, there is plenty more information—including some infuriating chemical company wheeling and dealing—in the CIR report, unequivocally titled “California’s strawberry industry is hooked on dangerous pesticides.” Meanwhile, the nation consumes four times as many strawberries now as it did in the 1970s. If the market continues to demand cheap, perfect strawberries all year round, hardworking Californian strawberry growers will continue to use whatever means are necessary to make that happen without bankrupting themselves in the process.

+ The Center for Investigative Reporting

Photos by Shutterstock, Martin Fisch and the USDA