March 20, 2012
After more than a year of litigation and unrelenting activist opposition to the fumigant methyl iodide, manufacturer Arysta LifeScience late Tuesday announced its intention to suspend sales of the product in the United States.
Methyl iodide patent holder Jim Sims, the retired UC Riverside professor who developed the chemical for commercial use, confirmed the company’s plans to suspend sales of the fumigant prior to Arysta's announcement. "It’s a surprise, but it’s a business decision," Sims says. A company representative called him Tuesday morning to tell him the news.
"The decision was made as part of an internal review of the fumigant and based on its economic viability in the U.S. marketplace," Arysta's press release states.
“It’s having trouble making money. That’s the way it goes,” Sims says. “It’s like seeing one of your kids fail, is what the feeling is."
But some suspect there was more driving the decision than Arysta’s cash flow. A lawsuit filed by anti-pesticide organizations in December of 2010 calls into question the state’s process for approving all chemicals, not just methyl iodide. If Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch rules against defendants Arysta and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, proving a pesticide has been adequately examined could become much more onerous and costly.
"What's really at stake [in this case]," California Rural Legal Assistance directing attorney Michael Marsh said after a court hearing in January, "is the regulatory program that's failed to consider alternatives in a thorough and serious way."
Salinas attorney Jeff Gilles, who urged Supervisor Simon Salinas to create a methyl iodide working group before the supervisors took a position on the fumigant, expects Arysta and DPR will try and get the case dropped.
“I would probably pull the case if I was Arysta’s attorney,” Gilles says. “I would do it if i was the state of California, too. On a chemical, you’re not arguing the process, you’re arguing about the chemical. This is about a process.”
DPR spokesperson Lea Brooks and Arysta's attorney, Stanley Landfair, declined to comment Tuesday on their plans for the case. A hearing is scheduled before Roesch Wednesday, which could result in a dismissal.
Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Carmel, pledges to continue working toward finding a solution for growers. A working group Monning convened last spring explores government processes, impediments and opportunities to the ag industry.
The potential for partnership was highlighted at a demonstration in Watsonville March 7, when California Department of Pesticide Regulation Director Brian Leahy toured experimental strawberry fields at the Monterey Bay Academy. He announced a $500,000 grant to the California Strawberry Commission toward research on farming in substrates like peat moss and rice hulls that don't require fumigation to kill pests.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, Tuesday asked Gov. Jerry Brown to create an advisory working group to examine alternative crop protection strategies.
“This unexpected announcement has the potential to create shockwaves to the agriculture industry and could result in the loss of thousands of agricultural and agriculture-related jobs,” Alejo said in a statement.
Sims had a methyl iodide test plot at the Monterey Bay Academy years ago, and says the product showed great promise. “I thought I had a good product,” he says. “I still believe it’s a good product.”
"I don’t know what’s going to happen with agriculture," Sims adds, "but they’ll muddle through one way or another."
Arysta plans to keep methyl iodide, sold as MIDAS, on the market internationally. "Not having an alternative to methyl bromide means strawberry production will increase in Mexico," Gilles says. "Other countries have registered this chemical and will use it, and as aresult the U.S. will not be competitive."
Cesar Lara, president of the Monterey Bay Labor Council who served on the county's methyl iodide working group, hopes suspending methyl iodide sales is just the push industry needs. "It puts more emphasis on finding safe alternatives," Lara says.