A new lawsuit challenging California’s approval of the strawberry fumigant methyl iodide won’t immediately affect growers, according to the California Strawberry Commission.

But it underscores the importance of ongoing efforts to replace methyl bromide, said Carolyn O’Donnell, the commission’s communications director. Methyl bromide, linked to ozone depletion, has been subject to phase-out under United Nations protocols since 2005.

“The big pressure is with the phase-out and looking at what alternatives work,” O’Donnell said. “Some work initially but over the long haul have issues.”

Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance filed the suit Dec. 30 in Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of labor and environmental groups, including United Farmworkers.

The suit claims, among other things, that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation approved methyl iodide Dec. 20 in violation of state laws that protect groundwater against pesticide pollution. Methyl iodide is on the state’s list of cancer-causing agents, according to the suit. Arysta Lifescience North America, methyl iodide’s distributor, is also named as a defendant.

Growers had already taken a wait-and-see attitude toward methyl iodide, O’Donnell said.

“The requirements are so stringent that when you figure in buffer zones and what further restrictions each county’s ag commissioner may add, the amount of acreage that could be fumigated with methyl iodide is probably limited,” she said.

Buffer requirements would be substantial because strawberries are grown in populated areas, O’Donnell said.

State reports say methyl bromide use dropped from 15 million pounds in 1999 to 6.5 million in 2002 as growers turned to new fumigants or responded to regulations. Since 2005, though, some growers have continued to apply methyl bromide under critical use exemptions.

“The United Nations people that work on the Montreal Protocol are frustrated with California,” O’Donnell said. “That’s because we can’t do this as quickly here; the state and counties have added regulatory layers. We don’t expect the U.N. will entertain critical use exemptions much longer.”

The commission — which represents both organic and conventional growers — has funded research into alternatives.

“We’ve looked beyond replacing a fumigant (with another fumigant),” O’Donnell said.

Ideas have included soil-steaming and incorporating mustard seed meal into soil.

Another option is raised bed troughs in which plants are rooted not in soil, but in ground coconut husks or other media.

California lawsuit challenges methyl iodide