Students, Teachers Push to Halt Methyl Iodide Use in California Farms

Oct. 22, 2011 / By

New America Media, News Report, Li Miao Lovett, Posted: Sep 28, 2011

Sal Lua remembers the reactions he and his fellow Brown Berets encountered when they first spoke out against methyl iodide at the Watsonville City Council meeting last December. “They were surprised that someone this young would go to the City Council,” he said.

The council later passed a resolution against the fumigant, but the students’ elation was short-lived. The next day, methyl iodide was approved for use by California’s State Department of Pesticide Regulation, which overrode the findings of the agency’s own scientists. While some students lost their enthusiasm upon graduating from high school, activists like Lua and his teachers continue the David vs. Goliath battle to reverse the approval.

Nestled between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the small town of Watsonville has been a focal point of action against the fumigant. It’s not the first time that residents have been up in arms over the use of pesticides on strawberries. In the Watsonville and Salinas areas, the crop accounts for 41% of the state’s $2.1 billion dollar strawberry industry.

The locus of activism has shifted, according to Dvera Saxton, an American University doctoral candidate in anthropology, who has been working with migrant farmworkers in the region. “In the old days, teachers were fired or forced into retirement,” said Saxton. This time around, Francisco Rodriguez, local president of the state teacher’s union, advised putting forward a resolution to the Watsonville school board, the first of several steps before taking it to the state convention.

In March, the California Federation of Teachers passed a resolution citing the potential dangers of methyl iodide for children, and calling for divestment of retirement funds from the manufacturer, Arysta LifeScience.

Mary Flodin is a retired teacher who campaigned a decade ago against methyl bromide, the fumigant of choice for strawberries that regulators hope to phase out by 2015. On a sunny mid-September day, Flodin and fellow activists point out the fields where fumigation is taking place under white plastic tarps. A warning sign is planted in the corner of one field, separated by a country road from the neighboring organic farm. “That’s nerve gas,” said Flodin, noting the chemical chloropicrin being used in conjunction with methyl bromide.

Eight of the schools in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District border on strawberry fields. On Corralitos Road, past Bradley Elementary, are fields in various stages of preparation for planting, one enshrouded in white, another de-tarped after fumigation. In this coastside town, tarps won’t always hold their poison. Next to the water treatment plant, the flapping of a tarp along the field’s edge resembles white breakers on the seashore.

Young people are more likely to see the connections between pesticide exposure and illnesses like cancer than their elders, according to Saxton. Lua has three little brothers, and used to work in an after-school program with young children at a site bordering strawberry fields. When he talks to his family, they’re surprised to learn about the dangers of methyl iodide. But their hands are tied; farm workers are afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up. “You won’t see organizing with farmworkers as in the past, but it’s a misunderstanding that they don’t care,” says Saxton. “There’s employer coercion, and it’s harder [for migrant workers] to get across the border now.”

The Brown Berets, with members coming from local schools, are the next generation taking on the cause. Every Friday, Emmanuel Ballesteros works their booth at the farmer’s market. “We repair bikes for farmworkers. While one of us is fixing a flat tire, another gives information about getting more prepared before going to work.” The Berets are focused on more than pesticide safety; every other day they’re circulating petitions to stop methyl iodide, catching farmworkers at the store or check cashing depots.

While methyl iodide may be friendlier to the ozone layer than methyl bromide, it’s the toxic effects that have caused scientists to voice their concerns, and educators to rally against methyl iodide. “The community voice has been louder on this issue than any other pesticide,” says Dana Perls, organizer at Pesticide Watch. Methyl iodide is four times more neurotoxic than its cousin, and studies show that it can impair development at one-eighth the dose. Both chemicals are on California’s Prop 65 list of carcinogens.

In October last year, the Brown Berets organized a forum at Pajaro Middle School, which serves a low-income community where many parents are farmworkers. The room was packed with families hearing testimonies from those who had likely gotten sick from chemical exposure, as well as a rap about pesticides that Ballesteros performed. Five years after Jenn Laskin got Ballesteros involved at Renaissance High, it’s the mix of creative expression and politics that keeps him involved. “I asked her to stop giving me school credit because I wanted to go,” he said.

Laskin, an English teacher at Renaissance, seems unfazed by the methyl iodide setback. “Why should money trump cancer?” she asks.

The state department of pesticide’s scientists recommended only 0.8 parts per billion as the allowable upper limit of exposure for farmworkers. But the DPR approved it for use at 96 ppb. When the U.S. EPA first approved the agricultural use of methyl iodide, 54 scientists, including four Nobel laureates, signed on to a letter warning of the dangers to farmworkers and the public.

Several teachers at Renaissance High, a continuation school, began incorporating the topic of methyl iodide into their curriculum. Andy Hsia-Coron noticed a greater level of engagement among students in his integrated science class when they focused on methyl iodide.

Besides learning about the chemistry of fumigants and their effects on the human body, students heard from youth activists speaking up for farmworker health. Some of Hsia-Coron’s students who came from families that owned small fields, or whose parents worked as managers, shared their perspectives. “Our schools are about making citizens, engaged citizens. We’ve drifted away from that,” said Hsia-Coron. He described this kind of learning as “starting with problems and concerns and working your way concentrically outward from them.”

While the legal fate of methyl iodide rests with Governor Jerry Brown and the DPR, Laskin believes that strawberry growers should start embracing alternatives to fumigation. Mary Lou Nicoletti, Santa Cruz County’s Agricultural Commissioner, noted last spring that they expect “increased public scrutiny” of all fumigants in the wake of the methyl iodide battle.

Not far from the Brown Beret’s headquarters in downtown is Radcliff Elementary, with a charming façade that resembles a small courthouse. It’s this generation of youth that really inspires educators like Laskin. While delivering picket signs to teachers, she was swarmed by children who wanted to help. Here in Watsonville, they’re crossing by fields on the way to school, and like the Brown Berets, they’re willing to cross the line to greater safety.

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