Several years ago, looking into the differences between organic and conventional farming methods, I focused on strawberries as a case study.
At the time, conventional growers depended on methyl bromide, a potent neurotoxin that is injected into the soil to kill pests and diseases. The applicators wore full-body suits with gas masks. The ground was covered in plastic to help keep the toxic gas contained. These fields looked like something out a futuristic moonscape, covered in plastic with workers in full hazmat suits. It was just one of the many toxic chemicals used in the conventional strawberry regime. I described all this in a chapter of my book Organic, Inc. Many people told me that after they read that chapter they never bought a conventional strawberry again.
Methyl bromide was always particularly controversial. Law suits were filed because of drift of this pesticide to nearby public schools on the central coast of California, the heart of the strawberry industry. The issue for the courts: Was the drifting chemical at sufficiently low levels to be safe?
You had the usual sides drawn, with growers who feared losing a cherished tool and farmworker and environmental advocates worried about toxicity. The result was that the state set what it considered a "safe level" of use, with widened buffer zones and requirements on when the chemical could be sprayed. But I found the evidence of a "safe level" less than convincing. Knowledge about the effects of chronic exposure to the chemical was not iron clad and a panel that explored the issue was split.