By KEVIN WALKER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The nation’s plant and vegetable growers continue to be squeezed by an international agreement to phase out an important soil fumigant, methyl bromide.
According to a statement issued Jan. 25 by the North American Millers Assoc. (NAMA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials notified the organization that NAMA’s 2014 critical use exemption (CUE) for methyl bromide will be the last one. According to the statement, EPA officials told the group this decision was made at the highest levels within the Obama administration.
Methyl bromide was supposed to be banned with no exceptions on Jan. 1, 2001, in accordance with an international agreement signed by the United States, called the Montreal Protocol. According to the international agreement, methyl bromide harms the earth’s ozone layer.
NAMA was able to get that law amended, however, with a new phase-out date of Jan. 1, 2005, and it included opportunities for exemptions. These are called critical use exemptions.
NAMA and members of horticulture organizations, as well as members of other grower organizations nationwide, have been able to get CUEs for several years. However, the number of CUEs has been scaled back dramatically.
Jeff Bair, vice president of NAMA, refused to comment about the latest development to Farm World. However, he did write about the issue on the group’s website last May. According to Bair, because the milling industry stores large volumes of unprocessed grain for significant periods of time, pest management is a challenge.
In the statement, he described methyl bromide as an important tool for controlling insects in flour mills and warehouses. He added by 2013, flour mills will have cut more than 95 percent of their methyl bromide use from historical levels. Mills are switching to sulfuryl fluoride (SF) and high-heat processes, along with other pest management approaches.
But the EPA is putting the squeeze on use of SF also, Bair wrote. The department has proposed a phased-in revocation of SF tolerances. “If EPA is successful, SF will not be available for any purpose,” he alleged.
Another chemical called methyl iodide, also known as iodomethane, was supposed to be a substitute for growers of at least some commodities. Although it is more expensive than methyl bromide, methyl iodide was something growers could use as an effective soil fumigant in lieu of methyl bromide.
Now, however, methyl iodide is being phased out as well. According to the EPA, the chemistry’s phase-out is voluntary on the part of its manufacturer, Arysta LifeScience. On its iodomethane webpage, EPA stated it is planning to respond to a March 2010 “petition from Earthjustice and other organizations requesting that the agency suspend and cancel all iodomethane registrations.”
According to news reports, the maker of iodomethane decided to pull the chemistry out of the U.S. market for essentially economic reasons. Whatever the case may be, iodomethane is no longer available as a soil fumigant for growers.
Last July, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chair of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, along with three of his colleagues, wrote a letter to the EPA raising their concerns about the availability, or lack thereof, of methyl bromide for critical agricultural uses.
Late in August the EPA wrote back, stating that 90 percent of the requests made for CUEs for agricultural uses of methyl bromide have been granted.
Meanwhile, on Aug. 1 that House committee passed H.R. 6194, the U.S. Agricultural Sector Relief Act, to help ensure producers, millers and processors have access to methyl bromide for critical pest management purposes.
Last week, the committee press officer stated it will continue its oversight duties this year with regard to methyl bromide, but that no decisions have been made yet regarding possible legislation during this session.