Environmental Justice Case Study: Farm Without Harm and the Methyl Bromide Conflict

Monterey County, California

Table of Contents

Above map provided by Tiger Mapping Service, 1997.


Recently in California, a conflict has arisen over the use of methyl bromide as a fungicide and pesticide, particularly by strawberry agribusiness. This conflict has drawn a variety of actors, ranging from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation to the growers themselves to community-based environmental health organizations. The source of the conflict lies within the economic benefits that California communities draw from the use of methyl bromide as a pesticide, and the health concerns evoked by incidences of exposure to methyl bromide.

Farm Without Harm, a Castroville based nongovernmental organization, was established in October of 1995 to fight the prolific use of methyl bromide as a pesticide and fungicide on agricultural fields in California. Methyl bromide is a toxic pesticide used in Monterey County on strawberry fields, flowers, and specialty crops before planting and after harvest. The group is composed of concerned residents, scientists, local teachers, labor organizations, and organic growers. Farm Without Harm's agenda is to promote the use of sustainable agriculture, ban the use of toxic pesticides, end aerial spraying of agricultural fields, and establish safe buffer zones to protect all people from pesticide drift.

This case study attempts bring some light to the methyl bromide conflict, and focus on Farm Without Harm's efforts to attain tighter restrictions on methyl bromide, and ultimately a ban. A brief summary and analysis of their strategies is followed by a series of recommendations for further action. The actions of Farm Without Harm may serve as a useful example for other community-based groups working for environmental justice.

Back to Table of Contents

Background: A History of the Methyl Bromide Conflict

Methyl bromide is a highly toxic chemical widely used in California agriculture as a preplant and post harvest field fumigant. It is primarily used in the strawberry and nursery agribusinesses. Methyl bromide is often mixed with chloropicrin (main ingredient of tear gas) to allow for deeper soil penetration and higher toxicity to soil-borne pests. This chemical has been labelled as a significant ozone depleting agent by the Montreal Protocol in 1993, and the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1990 has scheduled all importation and production of methyl bromide to cease by 2001. ( Click here for source).

In 1984, California State Senator Nick Petris (D-Oakland) authored the Birth Defects Prevention Act, (SB 950). SB 950 required that any and all pesticides in use in California be registered, and that rigorous toxicology studies be submitted by the manufacturer to California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) in order to determine the health effects of exposure to these pesticides. SB 950 initially passed with a 1987 deadline for submission, and with a 1989 deadline for the California Department of Food and Agriculture to set guidelines for methyl bromide use. (Over 200 chemicals are covered by SB 950, and any chemical for which the CDPR does not possess toxicology studies cannot remained registered after the deadline for submission.) However, the existing law permits the director of CDPR to extend deadlines for submitting mandatory health effects studies "if the director finds that delays in submitting the mandatory health effects studies were primarily caused by actions of the Department of Pesticide Regulation." (Senate Bill SBX3 1) The deadline was pushed back to 1996 after manufacturers reported that they would not meet the deadline as a result of what they claimed to be interference by the CDPR (SB 808, AB 2031).

Currently, the deadline for submission of the studies on methyl bromide has been pushed back to Dec. 31, 1997, with manufacturers again alleging that CDPR has impeded the progress of the toxicology studies. Of the over 200 chemicals that SB 950 covers, only methyl bromide and one other toxic have continuously recieved extensions, presumably owing to methyl bromide's vital role in maintaining a vibrant strawberry agribusiness in California.

Growing Public Concern

There has been growing public concern over the excessive use of methyl bromide as a field fumigant, and the human health risks associated with exposure to methyl bromide. Government reports and independent studies detail the rising use of methyl bromide, and the correlated risks to human health. CDPR states that almost 15 million lbs of methyl bromide was used in California in 1993 (CDPR, 12/29/95). In 1995, Monterey County used 2.95 million lbs of methyl bromide, compared with 2 million lbs in 1992 (The Californian, 2/22/96). According the to EWG, between 1992 and 1995, use of methyl bromide increased by 50% in Monterey County, despite the planned phase out by 2001 as required by the Clean Air Act.

Since 1985 more than 1,600 Californians have been poisoned by methyl bromide and several hundreds exposed(Environmental Working Group). M-BAN (Methyl Bromide Action Network), an environmental group, in a letter to President Clinton reported that 454 cases of methyl bromide poisoning have been reported to California physicians between 1982 and 1993. Although CDPR has not linked methyl bromide to birth defects and cancer, it has recorded "148 systemic illnesses, 52 eye injuries, and 60 cases of skin damaged by methyl bromide between 1982 and 1990."

Methyl Bromide Use Near Schools

Environmental Working Group analyzed data provided by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) and found that 826 day care centers were within 2 miles of 10,000 lbs or more methyl bromide application in 1992 (EWG Policy Memorandum, 2/8/96). Further, 10 schools were within 100,000 lbs of application in that same year. Up to 112 elementary schools and day care centers in Monterey County alone are within 2 miles of 100,000 lbs of methly bromide application (EWG Policy Memorandum, 2/8/96).

Enter: Farm Without Harm

In 1993, Karen Light's neighborhood was exposed to methyl bromide. The fields near her home, only 60 ft away, were fumigated. Approximately 14 people in 12 homes near the fields received nosebleeds, nausea, diarrhea, and soar throats, all symptoms associated with chloropicrin, i.e. tear gas. Chloropicrin is used in methyl bromide as a signal for exposure, and for higher toxicity to soil-borne pests. Light and other neighbors contacted the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner. Light states that the commissioner found the application process legal, and that scientific air quality testing was not necessary.

Light was again exposed to methyl bromide in 1995, as the fields abutting Light's neighborhood were fumigated. According to state regulations, fields must be covered with long tarps after methyl bromide application in order to prevent the escape of the gas. These tarps must stay in place for at least five days. However, according to Light, the tarps came unglued on the first day, and were torn by the wind on the second day. To compound this, Light states, the tarps were not immediately fixed. Four people were exposed, and experienced symptoms of methyl bromide exposure (Phone conversation, Karen Light, 10/21/96). The Monterey County Agricultural Commission fined both the owner of this field, and the methyl bromide applicator $800 and $3000, respectively. ( Click here for source).

Light met Marilyn Garret at a San Francisco convention of the Central Coast Pesticide Coalition in October of 1995. Garret, an elementary school teacher, had already been part of Pajaro Valley group that had been fighting pesticide use near the fields surrounding schools and daycare centers. Her students and colleagues have been exposed to methyl bromide on several occasions. (The Fish Rap Live, UC Santa Cruz, 2/14/96). Light and Garret brought together a group of Monterey County residents and formed Farm Without Harm.

Back to Table of Contents

Key Actors and Interests

Farm Without Harm

Farm Without Harm in conjunction with other community based and larger nongovernmental organizations seek a methyl bromide ban and the use of a safe alternative to methyl bromide. Further, until that ban is put in place, they are working to attain tighter regulations on the application of methyl bromide. They feel that exposure has severely harmful effects on human health, and that human health, not economic benefit, is the primary issue pertaining to methyl bromide use.

The Growers

California agribusiness and nurseries, the primary consumers of methyl bromide, are interested in the continued use of methyl bromide beyond the scheduled 1997 ban, when tests on the chemical will be completed, or until an effective substitute is developed. The strawberry agribusiness generally holds that methyl bromide is an inexpensive and effective means of sterilizing fields before and after crop growth.

The Strawberry Commission

The Strawberry Commission is a California state chartered marketing order comprised of California strawberry growers. Its primary purpose is to promote the consumption of strawberries, and maintain viable markets for strawberry consumption across the United States and around the world. In doing so, it engages in research activities concerning crop protection, growth cycles, soil quality, and pesticide uses, among other areas. The Strawberry Commission has taken a strong pro-methyl bromide position on the grounds that methyl bromide is the most effective and inexpensive field fumigant available, and claims there is no single substitute available for methyl bromide as a field fumigant. In light of the phase-out planned for methyl bromide, the Strawberry Commission is currently researching alternatives to methyl bromide.

State and County Politicians and Agencies

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has stated that it is faced with conflicting interests: the economic survival of agribusiness and the protection of human health. These agencies are charged both with the responsibility of granting permits for these chemicals and protecting the public from harmful exposure to these chemicals. Meanwhile, legislators are each faced with compromising the economic base that the strawberry agribusiness provides for their districts, and the political costs of human health risks that exposure to methyl bromide may impose. The California Department of Food and Agriculture, however, has stated that the loss of methyl bromide could be economically disastrous for California's economy, and strongly advocates finding safe alternatives before the the planned phase-out begins. (Click here for source.) The California Departments of Food and Agriculture and Pesticide Regulation, in light of the impending phase-out of methyl bromide, have formed the Methyl Bromide Research Task Force to evaluate research needs for methyl bromide alternatives. The Task Force is comprised of various private interest groups, environmental and labor groups, and government agency researchers.

Back to Table of Contents

Brief Demographic and Socioeconomic Description of the Affected Area: Rural Monterey County

Click here to see Monterey County's orientation in the United States.

Click here to see a map of the affected area in Monterey County, provided by the Environmental Working Group.

Click here to see a graph of age groups within rural Monterey County.

Click here to see a graph of employment by industry in rural Monterey County.

Click here to see a graph of the number of workers per family in rural Monterey County

Back to Table of Contents

Strategies: Farm Without Harm


After her exposure to methyl bromide, Light first approached the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner. However, on both occasions in which Light's neighborhood was exposed, the commissioner did not perform air quality tests (Phone Conversation, Karen Light, 10/21/96). Further, when Environmental Working Group privately performed air quality tests, CDPR criticized EWG's methodology but, nonetheless, refused to perform their own air quality tests immediately after application in disputed areas of over-exposure (CDPR Statement Regarding Environmental Working Group Monitoring of Methyl Bromide, 9/22/1996).

Farm Without Harm and various other nongovernmental organizations also attempted to work at the legislative level. Individuals from 10 organizations, including Farm Without Harm, testified before the State House of Representatives during Governor Wilson's Special Legislative Session on the risks of methyl bromide exposure. They also attempted to lobby their representatives to vote against extending the use of methyl bromide. Both testifying and lobbying failed. Ultimately, Governor Wilson and pesticide interests were able to extend the use of methyl bromide through December of 1997 (Monterey County Herald, 2/13/96).


Farm Without Harm in May of 1996 became an official member of the Regional Alliance for Progressive Policy (RAPP), thus forming the RAPP Strawberry Task Force. RAPP helped bring together other community groups working against methyl bromide use and the strawberry industry. Further, RAPP was able to involve larger groups such as the Sierra Club, and United Farm Workers. Farm Without Harm has also been able to solicit the scientific expertise of the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C. (Farm Without Harm Newsletter, Fall, 1996).

Press Conferences and Newspaper Editorials--Use of Media

Farm Without Harm attempted to obtain media attention for the purpose of creating awareness of the risks of methyl bromide exposure. On two occasions, Farm Without Harm held press conferences. The first press conference was held on Dec. 7, 1995 at a local school adjacent to strawberry fields. They were joined by the co-director of the Pesticide Action Network and, as well as Environmental Working Group. The second press conference was held on Feb. 21, 1996, in front of another local elementary school in Castroville. This was the day prior to the Senate vote on whether to extend methyl bromide use and allow further testing. Newspapers were on hand to report the EWG findings of increased methyl bromide use in Monterey County.

Light and other members of Farm Without Harm wrote editorials in local papers. These editorials had a two-fold purpose: 1) They focused on providing accurate information to the public on the risks of methyl bromide exposure, and what can be done to avoid those risks. 2) They also attempted to gain the attention of their state representatives and their governor.

Door to Door Action

Farm Without Harm distributed yellow fliers on the doorsteps of 7-8,000 houses near strawberry fields in the Monterey County area prior to fumigation. The fliers were printed in both Spanish and English, detailed the risks of methyl bromide exposure, how it is applied, symptoms of exposure, and provided a list of resources should residents wish to seek more information.

Back to Table of Contents

Evaluation of Strategies


Farm Without Harm's grassroots community organizing strategies have in part proven very successful in attaining its goal of a methyl bromide ban and protecting human health. Efforts toward information sharing have created awareness of methyl bromide as a toxin, and what steps should be taken if someone is exposed. As stated, 7-8,000 fliers were distributed, and printed in both English and Spanish. Further, press conferences and media attention have also been useful vehicles for disseminating information on the harmfulness of exposure to methyl bromide. Finally, networking with other organizations has seemed to be most beneficial to Farm Without Harm. In fact, Farm Without Harm is the result of networking: two of the founding members met at a conference of environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). Since then, they have received the technical and human resources of larger regional and national NGO's such as Environmental Working Group, the Sierra Club, M-BAN, and Pesticide Action Network, among others.


Action at the legislative and agency level has proven least successful for Farm Without Harm for several reasons which lay at the focus of the methyl bromide conflict. First, legislators not only represent residents living near fumigated fields, they also represent the growers of those fields. In turn, these growers represent the economic well-being of much of California, and especially the Monterey County area. They must balance between a health risk that has not been clinically proven, as well as evidence that methyl bromide is not harmful when applied safely, and reports of harmful exposure to methyl bromide. Tipping that balance in favor of methyl bromide use is the organizing and financial power of the pesticide interests.

However, given a steady increase in the documented cases of harmful exposure to methyl bromide, and continued grassroots organizing by Farm Without Harm and other groups, it may be only a matter of time before the people of Monterey County and California demand and receive a methyl bromide ban.

Back to Table of Contents

Solutions for Farm Without Harm

Seeking a Remedy in the Federal Courts

Because of the context in which agency decisions are often made, citizen groups such as Farm Without Harm receive scant opportunity for input in the agency decision-making process (Plater, 1992). However, Farm Without Harm and any other citizen or group make seek legal redress in the courts for harms caused by methyl bromide exposure . This can be done through citizen suit provisions included within the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1990. Citizen suits allow citizen enforcement of environmental statutes that are visibly neglected by local, state, or federal agencies. The Clean Air Act of 1990 is an ideal statute for such a cause, as it covers the use of methyl bromide.

However, a strong disadvantage to seeking redress in the courts is that often the court requires a causal relationship to prove wrong-doing. The plaintiff must prove that methyl bromide exposure is directly responsible for the harm done, and that they are not contributorily negligent for their exposure. Further, legal fees and the amount of time spent in court may also deter Farm Without Harm from using the courts.

At the State Level

The California Food and Agricultural Code, which sets the guidelines for pesticide regulation, states in sections 14021-14027 that the director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture "shall consider all available scientific data" concerning the regulation of a pesticide, including data from public health and environmental organizations, such as Farm Without Harm. The Code later states, in section 14023, that "Any person may submit written information for consideration by the director in making determinations on control measures." Finally, in section 14025, the Code states that "Any person may petition the department to review a determination made pursuant to this article." The petition should include any current scientific evidence that was not available at the time the decision concerning the pesticide was made. This might any include current Environmental Working Group data on ambient air quality near fields during and after fumigation, and so forth.

Participatory Research Methodology: An Abstract Solution

A certain degree of mistrust has developed between CDPR and the Monterey County Agricultural Commission, and Farm Without Harm. Further, CDPR has shown a significant lack of confidence in Farm Without Harm's and Environmental Working Group's scientific inquiry into the degree of methyl bromide and associated harm. In short, the two groups are unable to work together in seeking a solution to methyl bromide regulation. What CDPR has percieved as adequate protection against methyl bromide has only proven to be inadequate to Farm Without Harm and other groups. There seems to be a discrepancy as to how data on methyl bromide should be collected, processed, and interpretted.

One way to bridge the gap between agencies and the public, and rebuild a sense of trust in agencies, is to build a cooperative working relationship based on Participatory Research Methodology. Participatory Research Methodology allows for a concerted, linear group effort towards acquiring effective research that accounts for all actors' interests. According to Bunyan Bryant, professor at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment, under this paradigm both the positivist scientific researcher and the community member become partners in research. This can be done in a number of ways, ranging from community groups taking random samples to processing the actual research data. Thus, the agency is more open to accepting public input, and the public is more open to providing it in a meaningful way. Further, this research methodology makes the research and its results more accessible to the public (Bryant, 1995, Virginia Environmental Law Journal).

Back to Table of Contents


Continued Community Organizing and Networking

Farm Without Harm, by all means, should continue to inform the public of any health risks associated with exposure to methyl bromide. Further, Farm Without Harm should continue to maintain the web of networks it has built, and seek the ongoing assistance of these organizations. Above all, Farm Without Harm should continue to work locally and continue to build a broad base of citizen support.

Contact for further information:

Farm Without Harm
P.O. Box 1487
Castroville, CA 95012
(408) 633-8749

Andrew C. Hanson
525 Walnut apt. 8
Ann Arbor, MI 48014
(313) 213-7737
or email anrew@umich.edu

Back to Table of Contents