Thursday, October 6, 2011
Public health advocates and conventional farmers have found something to agree on in the controversy surrounding the fumigant methyl iodide: It’s very potent stuff.
“If it wasn’t toxic, we wouldn’t be interested in using it because it wouldn’t do anything for us,” says David Peck of Manzanita Farms in Santa Maria, where he’s been growing strawberries for nearly 20 years.
Peck was one of three growers at a meeting in August at the Sacramento office of Kahn, Soares & Conway LLP, a lobbyist and law firm. Peck was invited by the California Strawberry Commission, one of the firm’s clients, to meet with a Watsonville humanities teacher, Jenn Laskin, an activist opposing methyl iodide.
They were among about a dozen people meeting over cookies at the request of George Soares, a KSC partner and influential lobbyist who helped pass the state legislation that created grower-funded commissions in 1993; the firm now represents more than a dozen such commissions, including the California Asparagus, Sheep and Strawberry Commissions, among others.
That a leading ag lobbyist in Sacramento orchestrated such a meeting, extending an invitation to a small-town public school teacher, suggests Laskin’s got enough clout to be taken seriously.
Laskin is one of dozens of individuals active in a grassroots anti-methyl iodide campaign that’s featured protests and mock fumigations (think respirators and dry ice) on the state capitol grounds. But she’s gone a step further than railing against the sketchy risk assessment process that got the chemical approved to begin with.
She’s also called for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System to pull its nearly $1 billion investment in a $27 billion private equity fund, Permira, that acquired methyl iodide manufacturer Arysta LifeSciences in 2007. That’s the same year the U.S. EPA registered methyl iodide for use nationally (California, along with a handful of other states, conducts its own additional analysis), and Arysta’s federal lobbying contributions peaked at $120,000.
As a member of the California Federation of Teachers, Laskin crafted a resolution the union passed at a convention in March, urging additional scientific research on methyl iodide, withdrawal of the product’s registration, and that CalSTRS divest from Permira.
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When the patchwork of activists, lobbyists and farmers convened by Soares met in a fishbowl-style conference room, they were encouraged to speak honestly and to air frustrations and concerns regarding methyl iodide.
Soares had identified growers who’d trialed methyl iodide, including Peck and Watsonville’s Miguel Ramos, who Strawberry Commission public policy director Rick Tomlinson invited with a phone call. CFT’s lobbyist Jennifer Moreno and former lobbyist and current treasurer Jeff Freitas, who both also attended, called up Laskin. She was joined by Dvera Saxton, another methyl iodide opponent active with the Brown Berets. Saxton is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C.; she’s now completing her field work in Watsonville on health in rural communities.
The Watsonville-headquartered Strawberry Commission paid a little more than $4,000 to the firm in the last quarter of 2010 – when the state Department of Pesticide Regulation registered methyl iodide – and lists “fumigants” as the only active lobbying pursuit during that period on their Form 635, filed with the California Secretary of State.
The Strawberry Commission is only one of Soares’ many clients. His firm has spent more than $600,000 lobbying Sacramento so far this year ($10,000 from the commission). Soares did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
If there were any surprises to stakeholders in the room, it was how sincere they appeared to each other. Laskin, 38, has lived and taught in Watsonville at Renaissance High for 13 years, and some Sacramento insiders see her as more credible than paid reps of activist organizations. She’s driven not by a steering committee’s agenda, but by her own observation that students and community members carve out cowpaths through the fields, shortcutting through what she worries could be neurotoxic and carcinogenic turf.
As a resident of a rural community, Laskin’s also committed to making sure agriculture can thrive, a point that was hammered home at the meeting. Peck, who grows up to 100 acres organically and 300 conventionally for Well Pict, spoke about the challenges of organic farming. Ramos and Tzexa Lee, who farms 100 acres near Fresno – and was the first California grower to apply methyl iodide – spoke about the tight margins and unpredictable nature of farming.
It didn’t produce consensus, but the meeting left visible fingerprints on the activist campaign. “We came away from that meeting determined to not vilify the growers,” Laskin says.
“I think we’re trying to not come off as anti-farmer, because we’ve never been,” Saxton says. “The point is not to take down the strawberry industry. The point is to create a more sustainable strawberry industry.”
Growers see themselves as unwittingly caught in the crossfire between anti-pesticide activists and the regulatory process, which is left largely to chemical companies. And the meeting produced a shift in how to allocate activist resources accordingly. “It changed our strategy,” Laskin says. “[We’ll be] putting all the juice we possibly can into finding a real alternative.”
There’s been less research on alternatives to fumigants than both growers and methyl iodide opponents would like, but it’s not for lack of trying. Tomlinson applied for a $500,000 research grant from USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative to investigate “farming without fumigants.” In 2007, the proposal was rejected. The following year, Tomlinson teamed up with the Florida strawberry industry and submitted another proposal – and was rejected again.
The U.S. EPA is simultaneously reviewing its prior registration of methyl iodide and cranking down exemptions for methyl bromide, the fumigant that’s being gradually phased out as part of an international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol. And as a result, growers say they are subject to the whims of chemical manufacturers.
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“I was always sympathetic with the growers, but [the meeting] made me understand clearly they have no option after 2015,” Laskin says.
But even with a fledgling ag-activist alliance, Laskin and the CFT have no intention of withdrawing their resolution to defund Permira: “It was [Arysta] that pushed the bad science through. They made this happen. They’re more of a target for me than the farmers now,” Laskin says.
Laskin’s demands, though targeted at a private equity fund, seem to be hitting particularly close to home. Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau President Chris Enright devoted his September newsletter column to digging at her. “This teacher who shall remain nameless, supposedly gave extra credit to students for attending a community forum on fumigant issues, put on by an activist group called the ‘Brown Berets.’ Any organization with the word ‘berets’ in its title immediately arouses my suspicions,” Enright wrote. “Emotions must have run high,” he adds, quoting a student: “‘We got mad and decided this was a serious problem… so we formed a school club.’”
There’s been organizing around a push for DPR to reconsider scientific advice. At a state Assembly hearing in February, John Froines, a professor of chemical toxicology at the UCLA School of Public Health, said, “There is no safe level for methyl iodide.”
Such alarm has Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Carmel) pushing for more serious consideration of the product’s registration. “The ultimate arbiter of its safety should be the state regulatory process,” he says. “In light of the science that’s been shared, how could you reach a regulatory decision that’s ignored not only the science of independent scientists, but staff?”
At a community forum at Salinas’ Hartnell College on Sept. 29, Monning spoke to some 150 community members, farmworkers and ag-industry reps. “I am not here to point a finger at our ag community,” he said, reinterating his ongoing commitment to making sure the DPR process respected science. Back at the assembly hearing last winter, Monning asked then-DPR director, Mary-Ann Warmerdam, if she knew about the $208 million Permira investment made by CalPERS, the state employees’ pension system – and he noted the potential conflict of interest. Warmerdam, who since departed for a private-sector job with Clorox, said she was unaware of the investment.
Permira, which acquired Arysta for $2.2 billion in 2007, appears to have a cozy relationship with CalSTRS investment advisers, based on emails obtained through the Public Records Act. After environmental groups filed a lawsuit in January against the DPR for registering methyl iodide, John Coyle, the head of Permira’s New York office, wrote a reassuring email to CalSTRS’ private equity investment team: “Arysta suspected this might happen and is responding accordingly. The good news is that plans for the commercial use… are underway.”
Through a spokesperson, Coyle declined to comment for this story. Arysta declined to comment for this story, and instead recommended all questions be directed to Permira.
Investors have only tentatively celebrated methyl iodide all along. In December, just days after DPR registered the product for use in California, Coyle wrote to Margot Wirth, CalSTRS’ director of private equity, leading with this request: “Please do not forward out of CalSTRS, given the sensitivities.”
His note assured DPR had done its job: “As you will see from the DPR press release, the registration process has been highly rigorous.” And concluded with a congenial thanks: “We highly appreciate CalSTRS’ ongoing support.”
Whether CalSTRS provides ongoing support remains to be seen. Back in May, Chief Investment Officer Christopher Ailman told the Weekly he was taking the CFT resolution seriously, though the board still hasn’t formally discussed it. “It hasn’t made it on to the board agenda yet,” says CalSTRS spokesperson Ricardo Duran. “I don’t know if it will.”
The California scientists who have criticized DPR for a dismissive attitude toward their work inherited opposition to methyl iodide from the academic community. In 2007, when EPA registered the product for use nationally, 54 scientists, including a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, wrote to EPA officials urging them not to allow the chemical into the fields.
Laskin and Saxton say Soares and Tomlinson dismissed this letter as rubbish science – partly, according to Laskin and Saxton, because they said the Nobel Prize is an award for literature (there are six award categories, including peace and medicine). They also criticized the credentials of the other 53 signatories, and cited EPA’s response letter as an assurance on the process, though the letter does not discuss science, only confirms a committment to ongoing research.
From Ailman’s perspective – influenced by restless teachers asking him to dump shares in Permira’s fund dedicated specifically to Arysta – the letter from the 54 scientists “makes very compelling the dangers of this particular chemical.” Ailman’s aware of the heavyweight credentials of the signatories, which include five Nobel Laureates in chemistry and researchers at institutions from Yale to MIT to UC Berkeley. He also knows one of those scientists won a Nobel Prize – in chemistry.