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Don't Rock The Methyl Bromide

U.S. Requests Exemptions To Ozone Pact For Chemical

The United States is seeking to make more American farmers and industries exempt from an international ban on methyl bromide, a popular pesticide that damages Earth's protective ozone layer, Bush administration officials said yesterday.

Last year, the administration sought to exclude a variety of farmers and food producers from the ban, which takes effect next year under a treaty outlawing substances that harm the ozone layer. The exempt businesses would be allowed 21.9 million pounds of methyl bromide next year and 20.8 million pounds in 2006 in uses like fumigating stored grain and treating golf-course sod and strawberry fields.

... Some American growers say methyl bromide remains vital to compete with countries where cheap laborers do weeding and pest control. Critics of the American requests said the exemptions could undermine the 1987 ozone treaty. Use of methyl bromide has been cut 70 percent in industrialized countries since 1999 under the treaty.

Ah, the threat of imported golf course sod.

I'm not a chemist or an economist, so I can't judge the accuracy of the US's claims (pdf) regarding how vital MeBr is to the various affected industries. What I can do is voice concern over the standards that the Protocol sets for MeBr exemptions. Unlike most chemicals that are being phased out, which have to be "critical to the health, safety, or functioning of society," MeBr uses can be continued if elimination would cause "a significant market disruption" (hence the golf sod). The standards go on to explicitly note that alternative agricultural chemicals may be toxic in their own way. While I'm glad the Protocol is thinking ahead to avoid an MBTE-like situation where one environmental regulation prompts a different environmental problem, there's a certain narrowness to the assumption that we must be using chemical fumigants.

The Montreal Protocol is often hailed as an example of how international cooperation to solve environmental problems can work. But the reason it's worked as well as it has is that it's a triumph of the "don't rock the boat" approach. The phasing out of CFCs in aerosol cans, for example, has been barely a blip on the public radar because we found a alternative technological solutions. On MeBr, the parties decided to make not rocking the boat a precondition of action, allowing only relatively costless solutions rather than sucking it up and letting the threat of market disruptions hang over industries that continued to practice ecological disruption.


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