Monday, October 15, 2007

EPA v. science: the fumigant debacle

You may have read in the news last week that the US EPA recently approved an extremely toxic pesticide for widespread use, despite outcry from the scientific community. A group of 53 scientists, including 6 Nobel laureates, had asked the EPA to reconsider, calling the decision to approve such a toxic pesticide "astonishing."

EPA has been dealing with a tricky situation in the global phaseout of the pesticide Methyl Bromide (MB). MB is extremely toxic, and is a potent destroyer of the ozone layer. It was marked for a global ban under the Montreal Protocol, which was designed to stop - and repair - the giant hole in the earth's protective ozone layer. The protocol has been highly successful, except for MB. American farmers just don't want to give it up, and EPA has had a hard time replacing it.

Why is MB so hard to replace? Because it's a silver bullet. MB is a soil sterilizer. Farmers inject it into the soil before planting, where it sterilizes the soil, killing every insect, seed, nematode and microbe it reaches. You might guess that something so toxic must be an older-generation chemical - and you'd be right. MB has been around since 1962, and under today's health and safety standards, you'd be hard pressed to find a chemical that could do the same kind of deadly job.

So instead of finding one that meets today's health and safety standards, or better yet, encouraging ecological alternatives, the EPA found Methyl Iodide, which is every bit as dangerous for farmers, farmworkers and farm neighbors as MB was, except that it doesn't destroy the ozone layer. Hence the astonished scientists.

Maybe they shouldn't be so astonished. Last year, EPA rejected Methyl Iodide as an MB replacement, but then their pesticide department got a new staff person in charge of the project: Elin Miller. Miller is the former CEO of a pesticide company, Arysta Life Sciences. Care to guess which pesticide Arysta manufactures? If you guessed Methyl Iodide, don't worry, you're not a conspiracy theorist - that's what really happened. After Miller came on board, EPA reconsidered their decision, and decided that Methyl Iodide wasn't so bad after all.

There has been quite a lot of media coverage of this debacle, but if you like listening to internet radio I recommend the story by NPR's program, Living on Earth. You can read the transcript and listen to the audio here.

You may be interested in a petition to EPA to rescind this decision and focus on more sustainable agricultural techniques. The Pesticide Action Network has one you can sign on to here. And if you're a gardener or a farmer who uses sustainable practices and the idea of sterilizing soil makes you shudder, you're not alone. We think soil is pretty amazing, living stuff - check out this great diagram of the nitrogen cycle in healthy soil from Science Daily.

No comments:

Post a Comment