The Strawberry Industry Is About to Change Forever

CC BY 2.0. Daniel Mee

California's dominant strawberry market cannot survive without toxic soil fumigants, which have been recently banned.

Every year the Environmental Working Group releases the Dirty Dozen, a list of fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated by pesticides. For the past two years, strawberries have topped that list. (They surpassed apples in 2016, which had held the #1 spot for five years.)

Strawberries are universally loved for their nutritional value, sweetness, ease of preparation, and beauty, but they are usually grown using agricultural methods that are highly destructive. Writing for Smithsonian Magazine, Julie Guthman, a professor of social sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz, describes the "toxic rise of the California strawberry," and how building a strawberry empire has resulted in a dangerous dependence on agro-chemicals.

Strawberries are the state's sixth most valuable crop, with vast tracts of coastal land devoted to strawberry farming. As Guthman explains, "Acreage has more than tripled and production increased tenfold from 1960 to 2014." But this success is due to soil fumigants:

"Growers hire pest control companies to fumigate soils before planting strawberries in order to kill soil-borne pests... Fumigation has allowed growers to plant on the same blocks of land, year after year, and not worry about soil disease. With fumigation available to control pathogens, strawberry breeders have emphasized productivity, beauty and durability rather than pathogen resistance."

Customers, however, are concerned about the effects of chemicals in their food, as well as in surrounding ecosystems. Guthman explains that fumigants were supposed to be banned by 2005, but this ban didn't really come into effect till 2017. Now things are going to change.

Photos in the article depict rows of brown, wilted strawberry plants in the buffer zones between the edges of fields and the fumigated regions. It's clear that, without the aid of fumigants, strawberry production as we know it cannot continue.

What about organic, you might be wondering? Organic strawberries have boomed in recent years, making up 12 percent of statewide production, but Guthman pops that bubble:

"Although organic growers use non-chemical soil fumigation methods or rotate strawberries with crops that have a mild disease-suppressing effect, such as broccoli, few of them fundamentally alter the production system in other ways. In my research, I have observed that some growers are finding land away from prime areas that can be quickly certified for organic production, but have no long-term plans to manage soil diseases when they inevitably arise -- a practice that is not in the spirit of organic production."

Of additional concern is the fact that all nursery-grown plants are started in fumigated soil, as none produce organic plants; therefore, organic strawberries are not entirely organic.

What this boils down to is that, if customers are truly concerned about how strawberries are grown (and they should be), there are a few tough concepts to grasp in a society that's used to having everything cheap and on demand: primarily, that strawberries will be more expensive if they cannot be produced on the scale we're accustomed to and if grown using costlier organic methods; and secondly, that strawberries may not be available year-round if fumigants cannot be used to extend the growing season endlessly.

Is that a bad thing? For California strawberry growers and the migrant workers who rely on that work, it certainly is. But for those people who believe in eating according to the seasons and prefer not to rely on fossil fuels to transport fresh foods long distances, these changes to food production appear inevitable and reflect dietary shifts that many have already made.

The agricultural world is changing. I believe consumers are becoming more conscientious, and hopefully wiser, as we understand more of the damage we've wrought and try to correct it. With that will come changes to the way we view food -- hopefully, taken less for granted and viewed more as the tremendous gift it is.