Center for Food Safety Collaborates with Organic Strawberry Farmers in Innovative Research

Center for Food Safety (CFS), in collaboration with six organic strawberry farmers, announced the launch of a pilot project to field test newly developed organic strawberry planting stock. Government funds and university research support for this project have been non-existent, despite repeated requests for contributions.

Currently, organic planting stock is not commercially available to organic strawberry growers, as revealed by a Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) article. Therefore, they have no choice but to purchase non-organic planting stock from conventional nurseries, which routinely fumigate their soils with methyl bromide, chloropicrin and other toxic chemicals prior to propagation.[i] Organic strawberry growers have expressed dissatisfaction with being forced to grow conventional transplants, but no organic transplants or funding for nursery experiments have been forthcoming in nearly a decade.

In response, in January 2012, Center for Food Safety convened the first Organic Strawberry Summit, bringing together all sectors of the organic strawberry industry to discuss this problem. At its second meeting, Greenheart Farms in Arroyo Grande agreed to produce the first-ever organic strawberry plants from tissue culture and to sell them to growers for field testing this season.

“Organic has consistently led the way in developing pest management strategies that do not rely on dangerous synthetic chemicals, which jeopardize both human and environmental health,” said Dr. Lisa J. Bunin, organic policy director at Center for Food Safety. “Organic farmers are ready and willing to take up the challenge in the case of methyl bromide and strawberry planting stock.”

Organic strawberries comprise 8.5 % percent of California’s strawberry market and contribute more than $63 million to the state’s economy, based on 2011 figures. These figures are likely to be much higher given the tremendous, recent growth in organic strawberry production. Between 2013 and 2014, organic strawberry production increased by 21.5% for winter plantings and 118% for summer plantings, according to the California Strawberry Commission.

Allowing the use of non-organic planting stock when organic stock is not available was a deliberate strategy envisioned by pioneer organic farmers to grow organic markets. The problem with this approach is that organic regulators failed to include incentives or mandatory deadlines to ensure market supply of organic planting stock. This situation has allowed the production of organic strawberry planting stock to languish. As underscored in the CIR article, the lack of funding for organic alternatives has left organic strawberry growers without options.
“For innovative projects like this one to succeed and ultimately change the industry for the better, dedicated resources are required. Organic growers have the mandate and desire to find non-toxic solutions, but they need the full support of our public universities and state government,” said Dr. Bunin.
CFS is spear-heading a campaign to raise $10,000 to fund data collection and analysis of field trials to inform planting stock and market development and end use of methyl bromide in organic agriculture.

[i] Methyl bromide is a neurotoxin, a carcinogen, and an ozone depleter. In accordance with the Montreal Protocol, it was slated to be banned, internationally, nearly 10 years ago. The U.S. is currently only one of three countries advanced industrialized countries, which includes Australia and Canada) that still apply for annual exemptions to this ban. European Union countries no longer use it. California strawberry growers use about 90 percent of all the methyl bromide used in the industrialized world.