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Our Government (Not) At Work

Although, really, I guess that would depend on how you define their work. Let me put it this way: the government is continuing not to protect and help the citizens who pay the government to help and protect them.

Via Shaker Nik E. Poo, another depressing bit of news.

Despite the protests of more than 50 scientists, including five Nobel laureates in chemistry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday approved use of a new, highly toxic fumigant, mainly for strawberry fields.

The new pesticide, methyl iodide, is designed for growers, mainly in California and Florida, who need to replace methyl bromide, which has been banned under an international treaty because it damages the Earth’s ozone layer.

I happen to live a few miles away from some of the strawberry fields in question. (Upwind, luckily.) The procedure when they’re fumigating the fields is to cover them in acres of plastic. Great rolls of white stuff, about six feet wide, are rolled out and taped at the seams. Then a couple of guys dressed in white moon suits show up. These are the full biohazard overalls, with their heads completely enclosed in a gas mask sort of thing. They pace around, doing something obscure with hoses and stuff. They have a pickup-sized truck with a metal tank. Once they start pumping the gas under the plastic it billows in a dreamy way. It continues billowing for a few days. Anything alive under there is killed. I drive by with my windows rolled up, wondering how well those seams are holding up.

Meanwhile, a couple fields away, dozens of farmworkers are bent over, picking celery, or cabbages, or carefully hand-weeding a sod farm. When they’ve finished picking a box load, they run to the collecting truck. Then they run back. It’s not easy work, they do it for at least eight hours, and there’s probably scarcely a minute when they’re not breathing hard.

I can hear people sputtering, “Why the HELL don’t the farms just go organic!”

They can’t. If they tried to, it would take about three years before the soil microbiology and organisms built up to the point where something besides pests could live in those fields. Three years of paying taxes on the land and no income to show the shareholders is not something any agribusiness wants any part of. It’s not that they’re against organic farming as such. (Really. Organic farms are often more profitable after the transition period.) It’s that they can’t stand not making money all the time.

So they have to keep killing everything that moves. But life is very adaptable, especially pestiferous life, and there aren’t many poisons that will do that. Methyl bromide was a fumigant that did. It’s a very light molecule that went floating straight up into the stratosphere where it destroyed ozone. Bad for the planet.

But the farms that need a fumigant couldn’t function without it, so even though the stuff was outlawed years ago, it continues to be used with “exemptions” in quantities of thousands of pounds. (When an exemption is a continual thing, is it still an exemption?)

Now, I guess, the EPA has decided it has to get serious about stopping the use of methyl bromide. If you look at that column of elements in the periodic table, you see fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine. All truly vicious toxins, which is why they work as disinfectants. Iodine is a bigger atom than bromine, so when it’s attached to a methyl group, you have a heavier compound. Methyl iodide does not go straight to the stratosphere. It hangs around where we are and gets into the groundwater. Bad for people.

So that’s the choice the “hydroponic” model of agriculture has given us. Kill the planet (and us, eventually), or kill (some of) us now.

There’s an interesting twist at the end of the LATimes article:

The manufacturer [of methyl iodide fumigant], Arysta, has spent eight years and more than $11 million collecting toxicological and environmental data to persuade the EPA to register methyl iodide as a pesticide.

Arysta’s former chief executive, Elin Miller, is now a top official at the EPA and was appointed administrator of its northwest region last year.