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UF Agricultural Economist Says Delay In Pesticide Ban Could Boost Support For Expanding Latin American Trade

Chuck Woods (352) 392-1773 x 281

John VanSickle (352) 392-1826 (Ext.221)
Corinna Gilfillan (202) 783-7400
Michael Stuart (407) 894-1351
Joe Noling (941) 956-1151

GAINESVILLE—A University of Florida professor says agricultural industry support for expanding trade with Latin America could depend on delaying a 2001 ban on a controversial but widely used pesticide.

“It would be a good trade-off,” said John VanSickle, agricultural economist with the UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Basically, we’re talking about delaying the ban on a pesticide our fruit and vegetable growers need in order to compete with Mexico and other countries. The delay could boost Florida agricultural industry support for expanding trade in the hemisphere.”

He said the trade-off could help advance President Clinton’s Free Trade Area of the Americas initiative (FTAA), which builds on the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). FTAA would include all countries in the Western Hemisphere, creating the largest free trade area in the world. Only Cuba would be excluded.

The proposal would delay the phase-out of methyl bromide, a broad-spectrum soil fumigant blamed for depleting the earth’s protective ozone layer and used by farmers in Florida, California and other states to control pests and diseases. He said the current 2001 ban could be delayed until 2005 or later.

VanSickle, who serves on the United Nations’ Economic Options Committee that evaluates ozone-depleting substances, said no substitute pesticides currently are available. He said many Florida growers will be forced out of business without the chemical.

Environmentalists say the current 2001 ban should not be delayed. Corinna Gilfillan, director of the Ozone Protection Campaign at Friends of the Earth, Washington, D.C., said the U.S. uses 40 percent of all methyl bromide in the world and developing countries use only 18 percent.

“We already have significant ozone depletion over the Northern and Southern hemispheres, and it makes no sense to delay the ban any longer,” Gilfillan said. “Ozone depletion increases the amount of harmful ultraviolet radiation that causes skin cancer, cataracts and weakened immune systems.”

Under the 1990 Clean Air Act and the ozone-protection treaty known as the Montreal Protocol, the pesticide cannot be used after 2005 in developed countries and 2015 in developing countries.

“The bottom line for U.S. growers is that we cannot use the chemical after January 200l while producers in Mexico and other developing countries can use it for another 14 years,” VanSickle said. “That’s unfair.”

He said the difference will hurt U.S. vegetable producers who still are reeling from NAFTA, especially from Mexican competition.

“It’s like a double whammy. There’s already a heavy hangover from NAFTA, and now we’re about to lose a valuable production tool,” he said. “A flood of Mexican imports has put more than 100 Florida growers out of business. In this situation, it’s easy to see why the industry is reluctant to support any effort to expand free trade even further.

“If the President and Congress want to increase trade with Latin America, they need to reach out to Florida’s agricultural community by delaying the 2001 ban on this pesticide,” VanSickle said. “The Clinton administration needs Florida’s support for FTAA and this could be the best way to get it.”

In another bid to gain Florida support for FTAA, Clinton already has announced the FTAA secretariat will be located in Miami.

VanSickle said delaying the ban until 2005 would bring the U.S. in line with other developed countries under the Montreal treaty. It also would lessen the impact on domestic growers and give UF scientists more time to develop alternatives to methyl bromide.

Michael Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Orlando, doubts a delay in the ban will be enough to persuade growers in the state to support FTAA.

He said the ban should be postponed until 2015 in all countries and pointed out that a 2005 ban still gives Mexico, the main source of competition, another 10 years to use the chemical.

“We’ve said all along that any ban on methyl bromide in the U.S. gives producers in developing countries a real advantage over us,” Stuart said. “In fact, a 2001 or 2005 ban here will make an already difficult situation even worse — it just adds insult to injury already caused by NAFTA.”

He said banning the chemical could result in a $600 million loss in Florida fruit and vegetable production, more than a $1 billion loss to the state’s economy and a loss of 13,000 jobs.

Stuart said the state’s high temperatures and humidity favor pests and diseases. “The chemical is critical to the production of many crops, including tomatoes, strawberries, bell peppers and eggplant. It’s also important for citrus, cucumber, squash and watermelon,” he said.

Joe Noling, nematologist at UF’s Citrus Research and Education Center, Lake Alfred, has coordinated Florida research on alternatives to methyl bromide since 1993 and says they all have shortcomings of one kind or another. These include pest control or yield inconsistencies, or requirements for additional worker protection safety equipment.

“We’ve considered both chemical and nonchemical alternatives, but there is no one chemical or nonchemical treatment that will do as good a job as methyl bromide,” he said. “However, tests on a so-called chemical cocktail approach, a combination of three separate chemicals, have produced encouraging results.”

Noling said lower crop yields, along with higher application and labor costs, have not always been acceptable for growers who have tried the cocktail treatment. Of particular concern to all growers is that one of the chemicals used in the cocktail, Telone, requires all workers in the field to wear uncomfortable protective gear and respirators during hot weather.

“These requirements probably will force growers to limit field laborers to 20 minutes work per hour, according to current Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards,” he said. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see how labor requirements are going increase dramatically.”