Issue of March, 27, 2004
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Methyl bromide is widely used on tobacco fields
Credit: Mauricio Ramos
Report
A Step Backwards for the Ozone Layer
By Stephen Leahy

Washington won an exemption allowing its farmers to use more methyl bromide, a pesticide banned by an international treaty because it depletes the atmospheric ozone layer. But the exemption lasts only one year.

BROOKLIN, Canada, (Tierramérica).- The United States convinced the parties to the Montreal Protocol to authorize "critical use" of the toxic pesticide methyl bromide, one of the ozone layer-depleting substances that the international community agreed 17 years ago to ban.

The countries that signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer agreed Friday in a special session in Montreal on exceptions to increase methyl bromide use in 2005 to 35 percent of what it was in 1991.

Any increase above 30 percent must come from existing stocks of this gas.

"The good news is that there will be no new production of the chemical in the U.S. and that the request for a multiyear exemption was turned down," says Erika Rosenthal of Earthjustice, a U.S. environmental group.

The George W. Bush administration had argued that the ban hurt U.S. farmers and food processors and asked for authorization to use 10.45 million kilograms (23 million pounds) of the pesticide in 2005 and 9.45 million kilograms (20.8 million pounds) in 2006.

Those amounts are more than what the United States utilized in 2002, and is more than the amounts requested for exemption by the 11 other nations combined.

However, the approved exemptions -- also granted to Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Spain and Britain -- will only be valid through 2005.

The authorization of the U.S. request "is very unfair to countries like those in Latin America who made good progress in reducing or eliminating their use of methyl bromide," Monica Moore, co-director of Pesticide Action Network North America, told Tierramérica

It is a cheap reward for those farmers and agribusinesses that have refused to use alternatives to this dangerous and unsustainable substance, she added.

Under the terms of the Montreal Protocol, ratified by 184 countries, use of methyl bromide was to be phased out and ultimately eliminated by 2005 in industrialized countries. Developing nations have until 2015.

Progress made thanks to the Protocol reduced methyl bromide use by 30 percent of what it was in 1991, and the concentrations of this gas in the lower atmosphere have fallen 13 percent, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Methyl bromide is used to sterilize soil before planting strawberries, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, as well as tobacco. It is also used to kill insects in food storage and food processing facilities.

A highly toxic chemical, it has been linked to several types of cancer common amongst agricultural workers.

Furthermore, as an ozone-depleting substance it reduces the protective ability of the stratospheric ozone layer, allowing increased levels of ultra-violet-C (UV-C) and UV-B radiation to reach the Earth's surface.

More of this radiation means more skin cancers, eye cataracts and weakened immune systems, reduced plant yields, injury to ocean ecosystems and smaller fish catches, and damage to plastics.

The U.S. position threatens to undermine the Montreal Protocol, the most successful international pollution treaty ever, says David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based environmental watchdog.

The United States had been a leader in ozone protection issues until Bush took office in January 2001, Doniger said in a Tierramérica interview.

"It's the first time any country has proposed to reverse a phase out and increase the production of a chemical that's supposed to be eliminated," he added.

U.S. agribusiness claims that further reductions are unnecessary until 2015 when the complete global ban is in place.

Otherwise developing countries will have an unfair advantage according to the North American Miller's Association.

"Banning methyl bromide in the U.S. while allowing its continued use elsewhere shifts jobs and economic activity offshore with no real gain to the environment," Richard Siemer, president of Siemer Milling Company said in a statement.

The industry is well aware how toxic and damaging the chemical is, says Vanessa Bogenholm, an organic strawberry farmer in California.

"It's very strange that those companies think they have a right to make money while hurting their employees and the planet," says Bogenholm who used to utilize methyl bromide before going organic.

Alternative chemicals and methods require farmers to do more planning, involves more labor and is more expensive, but there would be better alternatives available if the U.S. industry had taken the ban seriously and wasn't spending millions of dollars fighting the Montreal Protocol, she says.

Countries in Africa and Latin America have already eliminated methyl bromide use, but U.S. agribusiness won't change unless it is forced to, says the organic farmer.

"The United States is supposed to be a world leader. It's embarrassing," she added.

* Stephen Leahy is a Tierramérica contributor.

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