(July 24) Methyl bromide is scheduled to be phased out by 2005, but some produce industry leaders already are spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars so the growers they represent can be the exception to the rule when the ban goes into effect.

The terms of the 1999 Montreal Protocol agreement calls for a phaseout of the ozone-depleting fumigant in industrialized nations by 2005 and in developing countries by 2015.

Lacking effective alternatives for a soil fumigant, U.S. produce industry leaders and their consultants are in the early stages of filling out applications for critical use exemption of methyl bromide. The exemption applications, required to be submitted 30 months before intended use, would apply to 2005 and perhaps additional years.

The 27-page application, which must be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency by Sept. 9 to qualify for an exemption in 2005, states in a footnote that the average amount of time to fill out the application is 324 hours. The EPA document said the amount of work required to fill out the documents “assumes a large portion of applications will be submitted on behalf of a group of growers.
It is not clear how many fruit and vegetable commodity associations will apply for the exemption, but the list is expected to include strawberries, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers and nursery applications.

Jasper Hempel , senior vice president for government and legal affairs for the Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif., said the large methyl bromide users are applying for the exemption. WGA is not submitting applications on behalf of growers, but it is providing assistance to groups filing the document.

Some commodity grower groups, citing the rising cost of methyl bromide as its production declines, say they will attempt to make do with available alternatives.

Richard Matoian, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, Fresno, Calif., said the rising cost of methyl bromide has made it uneconomical for many growers of grapes and tree fruit to use, no matter the benefit or the alternatives. For example, he said the cost of using methyl bromide for tree fruit and table grape growers was $500-600 per acre six years ago, compared to $2,200 to $2,300 per acre in 2002. Matoian said grape and tree fruit growers are not likely to move forward with the exemption application, considering the cost of the fumigant and the expense involved in the applications.

“A lot of growers are looking at other alternatives, including the use of better root stock, the use of better fertilization management to compensate for the loss,” he said. Methyl bromide has been used as a pre-planting fumigant for grapes and tree fruit, killing all disease, pests and weed seeds. Yields can increase by 30% compared to nontreated land, he said.

The exemption process is not required for use of methyl bromide as a fumigant for phytosanitary reasons. The exemption applies to soil application or for post harvest or storage treatment, he said.

Dominique Hansen, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, said the California strawberry industry would apply for the exemption. She said the industry had not found a viable alternative to methyl bromide, despite funding research since the early 1990s.

Chip Hinton, executive director of the Plant City-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association, said EPA officials visited Florida recently to discuss the exemption application.

Hinton indicated the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association is coordinating various commodity exemption applications in Florida. Dan Botts, director of the Orlando-based FFVA’s environmental pest management division, and Mike Aerts, assistant director of environmental pest management division, are managing the application process.

Aerts said several critical use exemptions would be filed for tomatoes, considering different cultural practices for growing tomatoes throughout Florida. Single petitions would be filed for strawberries, squash, eggplant, peppers and cucumbers, he said. EPA visited with the industry leaders in the Southeast on June 27 in Florida, and Aerts said they are on as steep a learning curve as the industry.

Although the cost of methyl bromide has risen sixfold during the past six years, Hinton said growers have no effective alternatives. The cost of the fumigant has risen from 60 cents per pound at 98.2% strength in 1995 to about $2.60 at 67% strength in 2001.

And Aerts said it is not clear what will happen to the price of methyl bromide when supplies are further restricted Jan. 1, 2003, when the current 50% mandated reduction in use will be increased to a 70% reduction.

“It’s going to get ugly before it gets better,” he said.