December 13, 2004


The Montreal Protocol’s arbitrating body will allow the use to apply the fumigant at 37% of 1991 levels in 2005.

By Bob McClure, Eastern Editor

MAITLAND, Fla. --- While the search continues for a workable alternative to the soil fumigant methyl bromide, Florida tomato growers are still battling to use the compound.

The latest chapter in the sage took place in late November in Prague, Czech Republic, when representatives of the Florida Tomato Committee teamed up with a delegation of U.S. agriculture officials to plead their case in front of the Methyl Bromide Technical Options Committee, an international forum for larger allowable quantities by growers with critical use exemptions.

At stake was the 2005 usage level.  The U.S. won permission last year to use the pesticide at 35% of the country’s 1991 level and convinced the options committee to increase the figure to 37%.

While U.S. negotiators were successful in their bid to increase the 2005 level, it came at a cost.  The committee tentatively set the 2006 level at 27%, which U.S. officials hope to increase next summer when the group meets again in Montreal.

“Initially, the indication was there would be some flexibility (on 2006 levels),” said Reggie Brown, manager of the tomato committee, “but as the week unfolded, we saw more of a rigid stance by the European Union.”

Under terms of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international treaty passed to restrict the use of ozone-destroying chemicals, methyl bromide was slated to be eliminated worldwide in 2005.

Two years ago the Bush administration renegotiated a one-year extension for U.S. growers on the grounds the pesticide qualified for a critical use exemption because alternatives to methyl bromide had not yet been discovered.

Since then, U.S. negotiators have worked to convince the international committee that methyl bromide use be maintained at workable levels.

Those growers not covered by critical use exemptions must discontinue use of methyl bromide Jan. 1, but those with exemptions will be able to continue the petition process indefinitely.

“There’s no provision in treaty to discontinue them,” Brown said.  “However, (the technical options committee) tried to get a 20% decrease from 2005 to 2006, so we don’t know what to expect.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is going through its review process on levels it will propose next November for 2007.  In the past, the EPA recommendation has been negotiated down.

“This is going to be a long-term slugfest,” Brown said.  “It’s almost like (international policy makers) have an agenda.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that the loss of methyl bromide would cost the agriculture industry about $1.5 billion per year in yield losses.

The USDA has spent more than $150 million on research for an alternative since cutbacks on methyl bromide started in 1991.  The problem is there isn’t an alternative that works as well.

Telone C-35, which combines Telone with chloropicrin, is the product most often discussed as a replacement, but it’s not effective against the weed nutgrass – a pesky competitor for Florida crops that can reach epidemic levels quickly if left unchecked.

The best compound to replace methyl bromide, Brown said, is methyl iodide, which was developed by the University of California-Riverside and purchased by the San Francisco-based Arvesta Corp.

Arvesta is marketing the product under the trade name Midas, but it is not registered with the EPA and has stalled in the process, Brown said.

Five years of field trials at UC-Riverside indicated methyl iodide is an effective substitute for methyl bromide in fighting nematodes, soil pathogens and weeds.  More importantly, it doesn’t harm the ozone and has an average lifetime of about 1.5 days in the atmosphere, compared to 1.7 years for methyl bromide.

The price of Midas is estimated at 20% to 50% higher than methyl bromide.  However, since methyl iodide is much lighter than methyl bromide, the UC Cooperative Extension estimates growers can use about two-thirds less of methyl iodide, or about 150 pounds per acres via drip irrigation compared to 250 to 270 pounds per acres for methyl bromide.

“It would be a compound we could use on a drop-in basis (to methyl bromide),” Brown said.  “But even if it’s approved tomorrow, it’s going to take a few years for the industry to phase it in.”