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EARTH'S PEST, FARMER'S FRIEND

Farmers are breathing a sigh of relief this new year, while environmentalists squirm over a recent Bush administration ruling that extends the limited use of methyl bromide. Methyl bromide has been found to contribute to the depletion of ozone. An international treaty had scheduled its phaseout in the United States on Jan. 1, 2005. But farmers won a reprieve to keep using the popular pesticide, arguing that no viable substitute exists.

WHY CARE ABOUT METHYL BROMIDE?

Methyl bromide is particularly important to farmers in Florida's warm climate, killing everything from termites to nematodes. Strawberry farmers, most of whom in Florida are clustered around the Plant City area, say it essentially sterilizes the soil.

By an international treaty, the pest-control agent had been scheduled to be phased out this year in some nations, including the United States, though some developing nations such as Mexico are free to use it until 2014. The United States has won a string of extensions. The pesticide was originally scheduled for phaseout in 2001.

Scientists have been working to develop an alternative. But none have proven nearly as effective. Without the pesticide, crop yields for strawberries can be reduced by up to 26 percent, according to Chip Hinton, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING:

+ "We have been using it for 40 years," said Carl Grooms, a strawberry farmer in Plant City. "They say it depletes the ozone. But they go and let other countries use it. There's just nothing that works nearly as well. Nothing at all.

+ "Catering to a handful of big chemical and agribusiness interests, the Bush administration is actually expanding the use of this dangerous, ozone-destroying chemical," said David Doniger, a policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

+ "My whole point is, if it's deemed environmentally sensitive, then deem it that way on a global basis," said Tony DiMare, vice president of DiMare Ruskin Inc., which grows about 5,000 acres of tomatoes in Florida."Phase it out for everybody around the world. It's typical government bureaucracy."

_ WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE AND LETITIA STEIN

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