(Nov. 15) REEDLEY, Calif. — Stone fruit growers could soon have their hands on a bug-killing treatment that would replace methyl bromide in post-harvest use.

The good news doesn’t stop there: The process is organic-friendly and extends the fruit’s shelf life. Researchers have found that this treatment conditions fruit in a manner similar to the preconditioning process, according to the California Tree Fruit Agreement.

The procedure blossomed from a quest to use heat and an oxygen-deprived environment to kill insects while maintaining fruit quality.

“I would have never guessed how well this has done, “ said Lisa Neven, the Yakima, Wash.-based research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who heads the four-year-old treatment project. “It’s amazing.”

HEAT, ELIMINATE OXYGEN

The treatment takes place in a chamber that allows the temperature and environment to be manipulated. A combination of heat and a controlled atmosphere is used to eliminate pests.

“Basically it is the physiology of the fruit against the physiology of the insects,” Neven said.

Neven has tested the process, which is funded by the CTFA, on pears, apples, peaches, nectarines and apricots.

The treatment is expected to be used instead of fumigation, which is required by several importing countries.

“We are hoping the method is accepted as a protocol down the road. It is better for the fruit and consumers,” said Gary Van Sickle, CTFA’s director of research and regulatory compliance.

The idea is simply to create a controlled atmosphere by taking away the oxygen, which speeds insect metabolism. Van Sickle said the combination of heat and oxygen deprivation kills the pests.

“It is a very realistic alternative,” Van Sickle said. “Creating a modified atmosphere is nothing new.”

It takes two to three hours.

“The magic temperature seems to be 115 degrees,” Van Sickle said.

Stone fruit shippers are eager to have an alternative to methyl bromide fumigation, Van Sickle said. As the chemical is being phased out in the U.S., its cost is rising.