Daily News Archive
From October 4, 2005                                                                                                           

Tomato Grower Will Stop Using Suspected Pesticide
(Beyond Pesticides, October 4, 2005) In a recent announcement, Ag-Mart Produce, the giant Florida tomato grower at the center of an investigation involving three deformed babies born to fieldworkers (see Daily News), announced it will no longer use pesticides that have been linked to birth defects.

In a story reported by the Palm Beach Post, "The recent issues that have been brought to light have caused the company to look further and harder," Ag-Mart spokesman David Sheon said. "The company has a history of wanting to be a leader in the reduction of pesticides." Shoen added there is "nothing in the investigation that will say we should do this. It's the right thing for the environment, as well as the workers overall.

Farmworker advocates who have lobbied for many years for tighter pesticide controls were reported to be delighted with the decision, but remain guarded. Shelly Davis of the Farmworker Justice Fund feels Ag-Mart Produce decision is “a good step forward.” Said Davis, "We would call on them to work with us so others in the industry will follow suit. It shows they can grow these products profitably without highly toxic pesticides, and hopefully that will be a model that others will adopt."

"That's really wonderful," said Lisa Butler, attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services and a former member of the state's now-defunct Pesticide Exposure Surveillance Board. "It's a major step in the direction of decreasing the risks that farmworkers face in the agricultural workplace."

According to Butler the move by Ag-Mart might signal sweeping industry changes in pesticide use — and improved working conditions for farmworkers throughout the state — "if we can get similar changes from other agricultural interests."

Ag-Mart's announcement came after the company had answered questions from The Palm Beach Post for a story about the company's pesticide practices. It was also reported that agricultural investigators in Florida and North Carolina are expected to issue pesticide-related notices of violation against the company within the next few days. Officials would not elaborate on their findings to the press. The state of Florida and Collier County health officials is expected to address the specific issue of whether chemicals used at Ag-Mart might have contributed to the babies' deformities in a separate but related report. That report is expected in about a month.

According to Andrew Yaffa, the attorney representing one of the three babies, Carlos Candelario Herrera, who was born Dec. 17 with no arms and legs, said the company's decision to eliminate some pesticides is "essentially an admission that the chemicals they've been knowingly exposing these workers to do cause harm."

Although the company is discontinuing the use of the pesticides linked to birth defects, they are still planning to use methyl bromide. The only one of six "conventional agricultural chemicals that have been suspected to carry reproductive risks when applied at high dosage levels" methyl bromide is the only conventional agricultural chemical that the company is not discontinuing, said Sheon, the Ag-Mart spokesman. Advocates such as Shelly Davis are not happy with this decision.

In a two- page statement issued by Ag-Mart, it was stated that they “cannnot at this time find a suitable" and cost-effective replacement for methyl bromide, a soil fumigant banned in the United States except for emergency or "critical use" exemptions (see Daily News), which Florida growers such as Ag-Mart readily obtain. The chemical is known to damage the ozone layer and at high levels has been linked to birth defects in baby rabbits.

Ag-Mart President Don Long said in a statement that the company is experimenting with alternatives "so that the chemical can be phased out as soon as possible." In the report Long insisted that his company uses all pesticides prudently, but said he is ready to do more.