(April 12) The plan to phase out methyl bromide use by the end of this year was injected with much-needed reality at the late March meeting in Montreal of the United Nations agency directing the elimination of ozone-depleting substances.

The Montreal Protocol committed the U.S. and other developed countries to phase out methyl bromide by 2005, but the agreement left room for industry to apply for critical use exemptions when no alternative exits.

After a lengthy process and much uncertainty, the U.N. group agreed to grant critical-use exemptions to the U.S. and 10 other countries for 2005.

This is good news for growers who worked hard to make their case to the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the White House.

Associations representing growers in California, Florida and other important fresh produce states spent tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours to prepare critical-use exemption applications.

The U.S. government team at the Montreal meeting should be congratulated for listening to the needs of industry and making a strong case for the exemptions.

Because of their work, U.S. growers will have access next year to about one-third the amount of methyl bromide produced in 1991. That, combined with increasing use of alternatives, should put the industry in a better position to transition out of methyl bromide completely without suffering dramatic yield losses.

For strawberries, the absence of methyl bromide treatment as a soil fumigant could halve production on some fields and drive prices up for retailers and consumers.

The industry would have preferred a multiyear exemption, but the imperfect process at least provided a reasonable solution for next year.