October 8, 2011

Tomatoland Chapters Two and Three: Chemicals.

Pesticides are used for a wide range of functions: herbicides kill weeds, insecticides kill insects, fungicides kill fungus, and so on. The pesticide industry is highly regulated - it takes over ten years to bring a pesticide to market due to years of testing and legalities. When you purchase a pesticide, you sign into following the pesticide label word for word as a legal document. Each pesticide label describes exact procedures for applications (how and when), what protective equipment the applicator should wear, how close to harvest the pesticide can be applied, how long you must stay out of the field after the application, and so on. Not following these instructions can land the grower heavy fines and legal action - it's serious business because pesticides are serious chemicals.

There are several explanations of why we actually need chemicals to help grow crops. Insects, bacteria, nematodes, and fungus like to eat what we provide. Insects can damage the beauty of the fruit, spread disease plant to plant, tear apart leaves, and so on. Right now, Napa is on high alert for the European Grapevine Moth, which causes damage by the larvae climbing into the fruit and hollowing out the berries. If in high enough numbers, a grower can lose all of the fruit. Bacteria can cause a whole host of disease that can reduce yield and kill plants full outright - such as phytopthera, the bacteria responsible for causing the Irish potato famine in the 1800s. Fungus can do the same to plants, and some of our worst diseases are fungal based. If we were not able to control the variety of diseases and insect pests that exist through chemicals, then we would have a difficult time growing as much food as we do the world over.

The problem is that sometimes chemicals are used in excess, and the pesticides tend to be toxic to humans. While precautions are made to prevent produce from making it to market with toxic levels of pesticides, the same cannot be said of those working in the fields, the focus of Chapters two and three.

Tomatoes shouldn't be grown in Florida. Florida is hot and humid, and while tomatoes like the heat, the humidity does the plants no special favor since humid conditions are prime conditions for fungal and bacterial diseases. Some plants can withstand this humidity, but not tomatoes. Tomatoes grow best where it's dry and hot, like California. Because of this, Florida uses a lot of pesticides to combat diseases. And while the tomatoes that make it to your plate shouldn't, and don't, reflect the amount of pesticides applied in the field, the same cannot be said of field conditions, the main argument of Mr. Estabrook. Apparently, growers in Florida don't follow the rules of the labels, and spray whenever and wherever with great harm to the migrant workers. I don't know much about policies regarding immigration and farm labor, but if Mr. Estabrook is correct then the workers in Florida tomato fields are regularly exposed to a whole host of extremely toxic chemicals, paying the price through terrible health conditions.

Of focus in the book, methyl bromide is used to kill anything and everything in the soil before planting. Fields are covered in plastic, and the chemical is injected via gas into the soil. It's used in Florida on tomatoes and closer to home on strawberries throughout California. Not only is this chemical toxic to humans, but is bad for the ozone. The chemical was federally banned years ago, but some vegetables like Florida tomatoes and California strawberries have special exemptions. Why? There are no good alternatives for these specific crops. In Florida, there is no other way to get rid of nematodes  (soil born microscopic worms) that decimate tomato fields. In California, no pesticides can kill off the plethora of fungal and bacterial diseases that drastically reduce crop yield and quality in strawberries. Scientists are working as hard as they can to find some other method - several of them have been my peers and colleagues these last few years at UC Davis. But no good alternatives exist right now, no matter what Mr. Estabrook says. He states that there is only a 10% profit difference between using and not using methyl bromide in some crops studied in California - but that's a lot when you're working with big numbers. It's enough to make growers not even bother growing the crop. The thing is, there are relatively safe ways to use methyl bromide to prevent any human harm (though the same cannot be said about the ozone layer). In Florida tomato fields, they don't do these things.

There are several things we can do to avoid using toxic chemicals in such high quantities, but it takes a change in the system and using smarter techniques - a topic for another blog post. For the time being, keep this in mind - agricultural chemicals have allowed us to provide for the world in ways never before possible. However, if pesticide usage is not managed properly and if pesticides are used as a first resort against pests, then the price is paid through environmental damage, human harm, and pest resistance. Pesticides provide us with perfect looking, cheap produce - would we be willing to pay more for produce that doesn't look as pretty, but uses less pesticides? While we can't change the system to give you that choice now, you can always eat locally grown and in season tomatoes - a step in the right direction.

There are people who are devoting a lot of time and energy to finding a better way to do things, and growers who use methods that use less chemicals - but these are not the growers providing you with year-round tomatoes. Stay tuned for more from Tomatoland, and more on pesticides that make it to the plate.

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