A battle is raging in Washington between farmers and environmental regulators. At issue is the chemical methyl bromide, and the outcome could affect the trade in numerous goods, the price and quality of many fruits and vegetables, and the livelihoods of several thousand American farmers.
Unilateral Ban. While perhaps not well known to the average citizen, methyl bromide is a widely used crop fumigant. Environmentalists claim it will damage the earth’s ozone layer, and thus it has been scheduled for ultimate phase-out. Under an international treaty called the Montreal Protocol, developed nations have agreed to stop producing the compound by 2005, and developing nations will follow suit by 2015. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has gone even further, unilaterally banning methyl bromide production by the end of 2000. This leaves American users with two serious problems – how to get along without methyl bromide, and, how to compete with other nations like Mexico that will have a methyl bromide advantage for fifteen more years.
Though the deadline is fast approaching, experts agree that there are no viable alternatives to methyl bromide for many of its most important uses, from preparing the soil before planting to protecting food against pests during storage, processing, and shipment. According the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “the likelihood of developing new, effective fumigant alternatives to methyl bromide appears very remote.” USDA predicted agricultural sector costs of $1.3 to $1.5 billion annually in Florida, California, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina alone. In addition, several imports and exports are required by law to be treated with methyl bromide, so international trade may be disrupted without it. For example, the Japanese government insists that American-grown fruit be treated with methyl bromide prior to shipment, according to
William B. McLaughlin of the Philadelphia Port Authority. Given the arduous regulatory gauntlet any substitute must pass through, it is highly unlikely than any solutions will emerge in time.
Costly Carrots. The ultimate costs of the ban will be paid by consumers, who will suffer higher prices for strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, carrots and several other methyl bromide-dependent fruits and vegetables, as well as the possibility of reduced availability and increased food safety problems.
Meanwhile, the environmental pretext for banning methyl bromide lacks merit. Methyl bromide became the focus of EPA’s attention only after chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, used as refrigerants) were banned on similar grounds. Some believe that EPA regulators are now chasing after phantom threats. Recent research shows that most methyl bromide is created naturally. Evidence also indicates that most methyl bromide molecules harmlessly break down long before they can possibly affect the ozone layer. As a result, the recently released Executive Summary of the 1998 Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion, an international analysis of the state of ozone science, concludes that “the role of methyl bromide as an ozone-depleting compound is now considered to be less than was estimated in the 1994 Assessment….”
In addition, whatever modest environmental benefits EPA hopes to achieve by unilaterally punishing American farmers with a faster phase-out will be undercut by increased methyl bromide use abroad, as America’s agricultural competitors gain market share in methyl bromide-dependent crops.
Lurid Predictions. Regardless of methyl bromide usage, CFCs have already been banned as the primary target of the Montreal Protocol, resulting in declining atmospheric concentrations of these compounds. Meanwhile, the lurid predictions of human health and environmental catastrophes said to result from ozone loss (skin cancer and cataract epidemics, declining crop yields, destruction of the ocean food chain, among others) show no signs of coming true. In sum, if purported ozone thinning ever really represented a crisis, that crisis has passed without incident. There is no point in banning other useful chemicals like methyl bromide. Unfortunately, ozone science rarely informs ozone policy, and EPA has ignored these recent findings.
Despite President Clinton’s 1996 campaign promises to farmers that methyl bromide would not be banned, and assurances of “flexibility” from EPA officials regarding the upcoming deadline, there is no clear indication that the administration will do anything constructive. In response to administrative inaction, Congress may yet save the day. Rep. Dan Miller (R-FL) has introduced a measure to restore the use of methyl bromide beyond 2000 (H.R. 2609). Such action would be good news for the many growers, shippers, and processors of foods that rely on methyl bromide. And it would be even better news for America’s consumers.
____________Ben Lieberman ([email protected]) is a research associate with CEI.____________________1 United States Department of Agriculture, “The Biologic and Economic Assessment of Methyl Bromide,” April 1993, p. 2.2 Id.3 Testimony of William B. McLaughlin, III, Director of Communications, Governmental & Public Affairs, Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, before the House Agriculture Committee, Subcommittee on Forestry, Conservation, and Research, June 10, 1998.