What makes an organically grown strawberry environmentally friendly?

Strawberries are a particularly pest prone crop.

To control these pests, more than 9.5 million pounds of pesticides, including over 3 million pounds of methyl bromide, a toxic ozone-depleting chemical is applied each year. Methyl bromide is also associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer in farm workers.

We all like strawberries, but this pesticide use seems excessive: more pounds of pesticides were applied to 28,000 acres of strawberries than to 780,000 acres of cotton (and cotton is one of the world's most pesticide intensive crops).

To avoid contributing to the use of methyl bromide, I have long purchased locally grown, certified organic strawberries. The organic approach is to rotate strawberries with other crops such as broccoli or a cover crop. Although yields in organic strawberries are only 65% to 89% that of conventional production, organic strawberries sell for 50% to 100% more than conventional berries, so the organic grower still does quite well.

Problem solved? Not so says an article in yesterday's New York Times.

It turns out that even certified organic strawberries are fumigated with chemicals, including methyl bromide, at the early stages of their lifecycle.

"Before they begin bearing fruit, virtually all plants -- whether they will go on to produce conventional berries or organic ones -- are treated with fumigants and other synthetic pesticides." In 2011, more than a million pounds of methyl bromide was applied around the world to young strawberry plants grown in nurseries. Most of the world's nursery plants are produced here in California.

Why is this practice acceptable to organic growers?

The NYT reports that many organic strawberry growers say that using organic stock amounts to taking a big financial risk with little chance of reward. "You bring sick plants from the nursery, I mean, you might as well keep your money in the bank," said Carlos Vasquez, who grows 24 acres of organic strawberries in Monterey for Driscoll Strawberry Associates, the largest berry distributor in the world.

Some growers may not know that they are purchasing fumigated stock; others growers don't see it as a big issue anyway.

"Once the plants bear fruit, they are not treated with synthetic chemicals, so the berries themselves can logically be considered pesticide-free."

But if you follow this line of argument, then many conventionally grown strawberries can also be considered pesticide-free. Methyl bromide is a soil fumigant and is not sprayed on the fruit. There is no evidence that methyl bromide or any of the other very low levels of pesticide residues on conventionally grown produce cause harm to human health. These residues are usually well below the tolerance levels set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In other words, most pesticides sprayed on crops are not harmful to consumers.

Many consumers therefore may conclude that if they are not harmed and their children are not harmed by a particular pesticide, then the application is acceptable. But most farmers and environmentalists would disagree. The toxicity of the pesticide does matter. That is because when it comes to methyl bromide and most other pesticides, farm worker safety and environmental health are key concerns. For this reason, an important goal of sustainable agriculture is to reduce the use of the most toxic substances.

Where do we go from here? Clearly new and improved methods of disease control are needed for organic and conventional growers of strawberries. This includes development of alternative, less toxic compounds that can control serious diseases such as Verticillium wilt. This disease is especially destructive in semi-arid areas where soils are irrigated such as the farmlands of California. Another approach is the development of genetically engineered strawberries with robust resistance to soil-borne pathogens. Because organic farmers are prohibited from growing genetically engineered crops, they would not be able to use such new varieties if they were ever to become available. But they may still be able to use methyl bromide.

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Fumigating the soil before planting pretty much kills any pests that might be in it. Unfortunately the fumigant tends to seep up through the soil and expose workers and others nearby. When the highly toxic fumigant methyl bromide was banned under the Montreal protocol as a greenhouse gas an ozone…

Huh. Another new piece of knowledge about what "organic" really means in the US.

Thanks, I didn't know this.

I particularly like the piece that includes GE as fitting into sustainable agriculture. Wait, no I don't! Otherwise good paper on Strawberries in the US.

I thought California was moving to methyl iodide for strawberries?

See, for ex.: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/us/20strawberries.html

Not that methyl iodide is a significant improvement in terms of toxicity, but at least it's not an ozone depleting chemical (unlike methyl bromide). But I have not been following all this very closely, so I suppose if they have decided not to start phasing out methyl bromide in favor of methyl iodide I have not heard anything about it.

By Mutant Dragon (not verified) on 25 Sep 2011 #permalink

Actually, one correction -- should say "not that methyl iodide is AN improvement in terms of toxicity", because in that regard it is not an improvement at all.

By Mutant Dragon (not verified) on 25 Sep 2011 #permalink

Hi, Pam. Thanks for pointing out the complexities of this issue. I particularly like the juxtaposition of these lines:

"...organic strawberries sell for 50% to 100% more than conventional berries...."

"It turns out that even certified organic strawberries are fumigated with chemicals...."

This is more evidence that "Organic" farming consists largely of lying, hypocrisy, and pseudo-science.

I am a disillusioned "organic" gardener who once worked at an "organic" farm, and I'm a partner in a newer, smaller venture. In order to learn about pesticides, I studied for and received my pesticides applicator's license in Maine.

The public's perception of "toxic chemicals" is a disgrace caused by propaganda campaigns mounted by pro-"organics" fear-mongers like the Environmental Working Group. The issue of toxicity is completely and utterly dependent on the concept of exposure (dose), so your statement "The toxicity of the pesticide does matter" is a bit misleading.

If any farm workers or "the environment" are being harmed, then somebody simply is not following the instructions on the label of the pesticide; i. e., they are breaking the law.

It's also not true that one either grows strawberries "organically" or sprays methyl bromide (or iodide) on them: We have a little strawberry bed here in which we grow berries for our CSA customers. As I wouldn't be caught doing things "organically" anymore, even if you paid me for it, I spray the plants periodically with Captan fungicide along with a couple of doses of insecticide (permethrin, carbaryl, etc.) to keep the bugs off. No methyl-whatever.

I'm all for the genetic modification technologies, by the way. Unfortunately, we small farmers will probably never get to benefit from them, so we will be stuck using pesticides and having the weather the shit-storm of lies propagated by the "organics" lobby.

By Mike Bendzela (not verified) on 25 Sep 2011 #permalink

Mike - why are you of the opinion that small farmers wouldn't get to benefit from GM technology?

Pam - where are you buying your strawberries now? (does organic production still come out ahead of conventional in terms of environmental and farm worker issues - as both systems use metBr that essentially amounts to a zero sum difference - one assumes that the difference in yields comes from some combination of fertilizer vs other pesticide useage)

Ewan. We grew all our own strawberries this year. Mostly they came from Raoul's certified organic farm but I also grew some in our home garden. We purchased starter plants from locally nurseries. I had no idea that all the plants were treated with methyl bromide until I read the NYT article. Very disappointing.

I have not seen any studies that compare organic strawberry production and conventional in terms of environmental and farm worker issues

I would love to see such a study

"Mike - why are you of the opinion that small farmers wouldn't get to benefit from GM technology?"

Investment cost, cost of licensing is ALWAYS going to be higher than growing your own.

Add to that the GM crop isn't really worth it and you can now get into serious trouble with exporting your stuff, it's not worth it.

It's not worth it for the big independent farms either.

Investment cost, cost of licensing is ALWAYS going to be higher than growing your own.

Not necessarily true, as evidenced by small farmers globally adopting GM crops - licensing costs in the current environment (at least in the US) are based on "value share" (terribly corporate terminology, but there you go) whereby the licensing fee is assessed as a percentage of the actual value that the farmer is likely to get from the product - thus if a farmer is going to save $15 an acre on production costs (say by eliminating metBr use) then a percentage of this $15 is what would be lost in terms of a license, therefore in the vast majority of cases the cost of licensing is absolutely no impedement to growing (there will be some outliers where the extra investment apparently doesn't pay off - if only because it allows those who don't understand statistics to spout off about there being cases where the technology underperforms)

Add to that the GM crop isn't really worth it and you can now get into serious trouble with exporting your stuff, it's not worth it.

I think we'd have to go in with the assumption that a commercially available GM strawberry would have the correct regulatory approvals such that exports wouldn't be an issue. At least to the extent that current GM traits are released - where export markets really aren't that big (if there at all - afaik for the release of any new trait now a biotech company will ensure that all the big export markets are covered in terms of export - not doing so will lead to a dud commercial product) - I'm also unclear as to why you state that the GM crop isn't worth it - in the case under discussion (a purely hypothetical case) the value is clear - not having to spray Met-Br to control disease in strawberries - on what assumptions are you basing the conclusion that the GM crop "isn't really worth it"? (my assumptions on the hypothetical are that the trait works, eliminates the cost of Met-Br, and that either the value share model is in effect or that the trait was developed by an organization like the USDA or by academics and thus doesn't have an attendant fee)

Now - in terms of strawberries it is likely that the up front investment cost is what prevents the release ever (isn't worth the investment for big Ag companies, and the cost of getting all the regulatory approvals is what would stymie academic groups), but I was working on the assumption that Mike was differentiating between big and small farmers, rather than big and small crops, and therefore assuming that whatever product he was assuming small farmers would not benefit from was actually released.

where export markets really aren't that big

Go go proof reading.... I meant to write where export market problems, or issues - obviously export markets are big...(as evidenced by the subsequent parenthetical which makes no sense whatsoever in light of what I had typed prior...)

Hi again.

Ewan, isn't it true that the development of GM crops is pretty much exclusively done for crops grown at scale? I can't imagine, for example, a company developing a genetically-modified strawberry (one, say, that resists wilt) just to be sold out of Paris Farmers Union for purchase by local farmers. When I think of GE I think of big fields of Bt corn, groves of papaya, that sort of thing.

I personally would love to be able to buy GE seed potatoes that resist both late blight and Colorado potato beetle.

By Mike Bendzela (not verified) on 26 Sep 2011 #permalink

Well, there's a very nice story of GMO fruit that everyone ignores because it doesn't come from the big-M:


"On May 1, 1998, after the patent licenses came through, Rainbow seeds were distributed for free to the Big Island's growers. In many cases, the farmers planted the Rainbow papaya immediately in heavily diseased fields, but the virus resistance held strong."

This doesn't fit the narrative that anti-GMO folks like to tell.

I have a third option apart from GM strawberries and alternative chemicals. If it is true that all strawberries (organic or not) are sprayed with methyl bromide, and if it is true that methyl bromide is a threat to farm workers and the environment, and if this situation is truly a concern to consumers then the 1st step is to simply eat fewer strawberries. In time fewer strawberries eaten will become fewer strawberries grown and less methyl bromide (from strawberries at least) in the environment.

No one will starve to death for a lack of strawberries. The fact of the matter is that strawberries are a luxury food purchased by the relatively wealthy in the world. If your lifestyle (and love of strawberries) is harming the environment you care about then cut the luxuries.

Ewan, isn't it true that the development of GM crops is pretty much exclusively done for crops grown at scale?
GM crops are developed with the objective of making money; they sell to where the money is. Given a sufficiently large number of small farms interested in planting GM crops, you'll get GM crops targeted at that group.
I personally would love to be able to buy GE seed potatoes that resist both late blight and Colorado potato beetle.
The 'seed' part might be an issue. The sale price has to cover the development costs, and if you sell plants capable of reproducing, you can't sell as many plants, and thus you need to sell each plant for more.

Ewan, isn't it true that the development of GM crops is pretty much exclusively done for crops grown at scale?

Yes Mike, it is, and I may have been misinterpreting your post somewhat - I was working under the assumption that you were saying that small farmers would not see the benefits of GM even when it was developed for a crop they were growing, rather than that GM would not be developed for a crop grown by small farmers (as surely there are farmers that would be considered large (in scale as well as waist measurement!) who grow strawberries and other crops.

My question was more an "if it were around why wouldn't small farmers be able to use it" rather than trying to suggest that GM would be developed for any and all crops (I think I covered this in the response to Wow above)

It is true that for the most part (and I believe here papaya is a glaring outlier, hopefully a sign of things to come) that unless you're talking about a multi million dollar a year opportunity (or some order of magnitude thereof) big Ag companies aren't going to touch it because there isn't enough profit (there may well actually be a chance at recouping investment, but this isn't all that need be done, which is sad) and smaller researchers/companies won't be able to go at it because they can't afford to cover the cost of development and regulatory approval (even where end profits may well exceed these values - the whole risk/reward approach of venture capitalism halts the process, which again, is sad)

GM crops are developed with the objective of making money

Current commercialized GM crops sure, lots of GM crops are developed without that objective in mind - they generally end up dead on the vine because without the money to get regulatory approval you can't get a crop to market - just ask Pam.

The 'seed' part might be an issue. The sale price has to cover the development costs, and if you sell plants capable of reproducing, you can't sell as many plants, and thus you need to sell each plant for more.

IP protection would/could stop this as it does in soy, corn, cotton etc - or some other sort of license (multi year coverage for a cost per year so long as you are growing the crop for instance) - or if developed outside of industry the IP could simply be ignored if the holders wished it so.

It's a little strange for me to say this, because I've always taken it for granted that California is way ahead of the curve compared to Florida, but the use of the fumigant methylbromide has been phased out in Florida. I'm not sure whether the phase-out is complete by now, they've been at this for years, but this move has sparked an enormous spike in research to find more environmentally friendly alternatives.
To the best of my knowledge, strawberry production has not collapsed yet in Florida, and the price hasn't increased dramatically (yet). But I suppose there's still time for that.

This highlights the need for GM strawberries!

I'm with Karen! Reducing pesticide sprays to produce crops in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way is one of the best arguments for GM strawberry. Or GM anything, for that matter.

The organic farming failure here is that for a brief period organic farmers are using conventional practices (sometimes unwittingly). Is that a condemnation of organic farming, or an admission that conventional farming needs to change?

In theory, GM crops are always a benefit to humanity. In practice, they're not (always). Until a GM strawberry exists it is premature to extoll its virtues.

By Moe Dubreuil (not verified) on 28 Sep 2011 #permalink

Mike: In 2010, the 15th year of commercialization, a record 15.4 million farmers grew biotech crops â notably over 90% were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries. So just because a crop is GE, does not mean you need to be a wealthy US Farmer (eg Bt cotton in India and China is grown on small acreage farms). It is true though that, in the US, most of the GE crops have been developed by companies for large acreage crops (Corn, cotton, soy). As far as I know only papaya that was developed for small farmers and funded by non-Profit sources.

Moe, I agree that the strawberry story does not mean that all organic farming is a failure. I see organic farming as an important step towards a future sustainable agriculture. Both organic and conventional have room for improvement. And you are right a GE strawberry is not yet available so we cannot extoll its virtues (but we can work towards it).

I find it amazing the thing people are able propagate and get away with because of media and hype. People need to be more aware if this type of information so they can stop giving away their money to âorganicâ companies that are not really that different from regular farms. Thank you for sharing this information with us so we can all hopefully be more aware of what were buying and eating.