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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 19th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 3 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 3

Hefty fines for illegal pesticide use poses larger questions of safety and regulation for Santa Maria strawberry growers

By MALEA MARTIN

When consuming fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s easy to forget how these fibrous foods make their way from farm to table. From unpredictable climate patterns to ensuring soil health, farming is a tenuous industry that requires meticulous planning and prediction in order to keep up with demand. And, for better or worse, one way farmers keep their crops afloat is with the aid of pesticides. But if these chemicals kill bugs, what can they do to those who consume the fruit?

Rules and regulations from entities as large as the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), all the way down to local agricultural commissioners, work to stop some of the most dangerous pesticides from making their way onto our dinner tables. One way that the DPR deters the use of illegal pesticides is through a random sampling process.

“We do this random sampling three to four times per week to various stores, outlets, distribution centers, and farmers’ markets,” Charlotte Fadipe, the DPR’s assistant director of communications, told the Sun.

On March 4, the DPR announced that they levied fines against multiple Santa Maria strawberry growers after finding traces of the restricted pesticide methomyl in their products, the settlement agreement from the case states. After a three-month-long investigation and a cease-harvest order, the DPR levied a $15,000 fine against one of the growers in question. The county’s investigation into the same case is ongoing, and it may result in additional penalties.

DPR Director Val Dolcini told the Sun that these enforcement action programs seek to promote public safety.

“We want to make sure that growers understand that we don’t take these actions lightly and that, when we do take actions like this, it’s meant to demonstrate that these programs are credible,” Dolcini said. “They’re designed to protect the health and safety of Californians.”

California produces more than 91 percent of the nation’s entire strawberry crop, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, and a 2018 California Strawberry Commission report states that Santa Maria is one of the top strawberry producing regions in the state. This means that pesticide violations from the local region have the potential to reach far and wide.

But according to Adam Vega, a Ventura and Santa Barbara county community organizer with Californians for Pesticide Reform, growers are not the only ones at fault in what he called “a cat and mouse game.”

“The situation in Santa Barbara County is reflective of the issue of this current system of agriculture that we have,” Vega told the Sun. “We have this idea that we need to feed the world, so our food is produced to be durable … . Because of that, farmers are left to produce high yields of really nice looking fruit, and the way they do that is with a lot of these synthetic chemical inputs.”

Vega emphasized that the DPR and local authorities are correct in their choice to ban the use of methomyl on strawberries.

“It’s like a sledgehammer: It kills anything and everything it touches,” he said. “It was banned for strawberry production because of its toxicity.”

However, he said that just because methomyl is illegal doesn’t mean other legal, registered pesticides don’t also pose a huge public health threat.

“There’s tons of things that are registered for ag use,” Vega said. “We’ve been entrenched in a years-long battle with the use of this chemical called chlorpyrifos … . We’re in the final stages of it being removed from California agriculture. That was a fight 20 years in the making.”

Chlorpyrifos, which can cause brain damage and health defects in children, only became illegal at the start of 2020, according to an NPR article. This means that during the 2019 investigation against the Santa Maria growers who used methomyl, other growers in California were likely using chlorpyrifos—without consequence.

The varying perspectives on pesticide use and enforcement brings up a greater question: What makes using a certain pesticide an inherently good or bad moral choice? Is it the current legal status of the pesticide, which, as Vega points out, often changes over time? Or is it how dangerous the pesticide is to farmworkers, the public, and the environment—regardless of its legality? Ideally, there would be no discrepancy between what is illegal and what is harmful, but, as Vega said, this is not yet the case.

Regardless of how dangerous both legal and illegal pesticides can be, breaking the law is still breaking the law. The DPR’s investigation found that multiple Santa Maria strawberry growers indeed broke the law, and Dolcini said that growers are made unequivocally aware of what pesticides are allowed.

“We work closely with county ag commissioners around California,” Dolcini said. “We’re also always doing educational presentations, seminars, and other things, with local growers to Farm Bureau chapters to industry groups.”

Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director at the California Strawberry Commission, told the Sun that pesticide application must be by a licensed, trained applicator.

“They’re trained to know what the cautions are, and the label says what products can be used on each crop,” O’Donnell said.

In the case of methomyl, the chemical’s illegal status is enough to deter most farmers from using it, Dolcini said.

“The vast majority of the time, California growers are in total compliance with our rules and regulations,” Dolcini said. “Every once in a while we find that there’s a pesticide residue violation by a grower, and that leads us to take an action. That was the case here.”

But for other pesticides that are known to be dangerous and yet remain legal, the public health hazard alone is not enough to deter their usage. The root of the problem may not lie solely with farmers’ choices, but with a food industry that demands yields and superficial produce perfection that only harsh pesticides can achieve.

That’s why for local organizers like Vega, the path forward isn’t just enforcement actions and fines: it’s a complete overhaul of the system that allows—and the markets that reward—harmful pesticide use in the first place.

“Until we move away from that type of system to an agroecological system—where we work with nature rather than against, and produce food for local consumption rather than global distribution—the story that came out of Santa Maria is one of many to come,” he said.

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@santamariasun.com.








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