Nation & World

USDA seeks to end Chilean grape growers' methyl bromide use

WASHINGTON -- Grape lovers could have an easier time finding Chilean bunches untouched by the potent chemical methyl bromide, under new rules proposed Wednesday by the Agriculture Department.

At Chile's request, and after at least six years of study, the Agriculture Department wants to lift the longstanding requirement that Chilean table grape producers eradicate mites with methyl bromide. Instead, Chilean producers would follow a new system of registration and inspections.

California table grape growers need not fear either infestation or competition, Bush administration officials insist.

"Most grape production in Chile takes place during U.S. winter months, when there is little or no fresh grape production within the United States with which to compete," the Agriculture Department noted Wednesday.

But the idea is being greeted cautiously in the San Joaquin and Coachella valleys of California, where 99 percent of all U.S. table grapes are grown.

"We still have to learn more," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "We know there's going to be overarching concern over the possible introduction of pests."

Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission, agreed that U.S. technical experts must still dig into the details enumerated in a five-page Federal Register notice.

"Once we do the analysis, we'll be advocating our position accordingly," Nave said.

Chilean producers currently fumigate their U.S.-bound table grapes with methyl bromide in order to protect against Brevipalpus chilensis, also known as the false grape mite. Barely one millimeter across, the tiny mites nonetheless can be big-time trouble.

The mites feed on leaves, discoloring them and causing them to drop. They can seriously damage vineyards in the spring, and U.S. growers want to do everything they can to avoid them.

"The whole question here is, 'Does it increase the risk of the introduction of invasive pests?'" Bedwell said.

Methyl bromide works. It can also poison humans and degrade the earth's protective ozone layer. Under the Montreal Protocol, its international use is supposed to be gradually phased out.

Chilean clementine, mandarin and tangerine producers have already been permitted to replace methyl bromide fumigation with a system combining registration with inspection.

Starting in 2002, the Chilean plant protection agency began pilot programs testing whether this so-called systematic approach could work with table grapes. The studies found the approach was "efficacious," Agriculture Department officials reported Wednesday.

The proposed system would require interested Chilean producers to register annually with the country's Servicio Agricola y Ganadero. Random fruit samples would be tested, and if a single mite were discovered methyl bromide fumigation would be required for export. Chile would have to pay for the U.S. Agriculture Department's inspection costs.

Currently, California produces about 703,000 metric tons of table grapes annually. The domestic grapes are primarily shipped to the U.S. market between May and November. Imported grapes take over between December and April. Chile leads the way, accounting for approximately 75 percent of total U.S. imports.

"The presence of imported grapes within the domestic market during the U.S. off-season allows for year-round availability of the product and promotes domestic consumption," the Agriculture Department averred in its Federal Register notice Wednesday.

But this issue could further expose divisions among U.S. growers, depending on where they are located. Coachella Valley growers, whose crop comes in earlier than the San Joaquin Valley's, have in the past been more resistant to measures that would increase Chilean shipments.