Almost All American Strawberries Are Grown With Toxic Chemicals

For a century, the industry has used fumigants to farm berries year-round.

Boxes of strawberries
Mike Blake / Reuters

In this episode, we tell an age-old tale: An innocent young berry heads west in search of fame and fortune—but sells its soul in the process. For our hero, the strawberry, to defeat its nemesis, a fungus called wilt, the aromatic red fruit makes a deal with the devil—and duly becomes America’s favorite berry. But its success relies on fumigants, toxic gases injected into the soil that kill everything in their path. So what are fumigants? What’s their effect on farm workers, local communities, and the environment? And can the strawberry break free from their poisonous grip? Listen to this episode to find out.

Unlike many of our favorite fruits and vegetables, we know exactly where and when the cultivated strawberry that we buy in our grocery stores and farmers’ markets was born: 300 years ago in a greenhouse in Versailles, France. The scientist Patrick Edger, whom Gastropod listeners will remember from our “Cutting the Mustard” episode, and whose recent work includes a collaborative project to assemble the strawberry genome, told us the tiny North American strawberry Fragaria virginiana accidentally crossbred with strawberries collected from Chile, Fragaria chiloensis, in the French greenhouse—“and then, all of a sudden, they saw this massive strawberry emerge,” said Edger. “And that really transformed the strawberry industry.”

The next big transformation occurred when the strawberry moved west. The social scientist Julie Guthman’s new book, Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry, tells the little-known story of how the strawberry overcame all manner of obstacles to become an everyday treat across the United States—thanks to lucky breeding, smart marketing, and some leftover tear gas from World War I. But today, with one of the primary soil fumigants that strawberry farmers previously relied on banned, and with increasing pressure from farm-worker groups, local communities, and consumers, can strawberries clean up their act? With the help of Steven Knapp, who directs the strawberry-breeding program at UC Davis; Dan Nelson, who is growing baby strawberry plants without fumigants at Innovative Organic Nursery; and Matt Celona, who manages to grow Cynthia’s favorite strawberries without any inputs whatsoever at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm, we explore whether the strawberry can quit fumigants and become even tastier in the process. Listen in now for the surprising story of strawberry’s dirty secrets and bright future.

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.