Agricultural researchers have found promising data showing that molasses can control crop-destroying nematodes and weeds just as well as the banned pesticide methyl bromide.
The experimentation has been done in sandy Florida soils by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), an arm of the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but the method developed is expected to work in California, too.
Orchards, vineyards and vegetable plant growth are stunted and even killed when nematode populations, which seem always to be present, rise high enough. The microscopic critters like to feed on the roots of plants, always hiding underground.
The double-barreled benefit of methyl bromide comes in the control of weed seeds as well.
Pre-planting fumigation with the soil-penetrating methyl bromide has kept both nematodes and weeds under control for years, especially in strawberries. However, freaked-out environmentalists have convinced oblivious lawmakers and other regulators to ban the fumigant worldwide, because they fear it depletes the earth's stratospheric ozone layer.
A number of respected agricultural researchers in California have ridiculed methyl bromide's banning, but to no avail. They have pointed out that natural degradation of seaweed in the earth's oceans is by far the major cause of changes in the ozone layer.
They have provided dramatic examples, making such claims that spraying the entire surface of the earth with methyl bromide would provide no more than a fraction of the atmospheric degradation caused by the seaweed.
For now, the acceptable substitute for methyl bromide has been methyl iodide, but those on the environmental fringe are also uncomfortable about it. So the stage is set for a compromise substitute, and the ARS research indicates that molasses might be it.
ARS researchers Erin Rosskopf and Nancy Kokalis-Burelle and former ARS research associate David Butler in Florida combined molasses with composted broiler litter and anaerobic soil disinfestation (ASD). When topsoil saturated with water was covered with a plastic tarp, significant kill of nematodes and weed seeds occurred.
They say the sun-drenched tarp "cooks" the weed seeds in the soil, and the carbon and water increase microbial activity, creating conditions conducive to pest control. The molasses used was a waste product from the sugar cane processing industry.
After they planted peppers in the fall and eggplant in the spring in the treated soil, they performed extensive tests showing nematode populations significantly reduced and weed seeds controlled just as well as with methyl bromide. They are continuing the evaluations of the molasses combination, and with dimethyl disulfide and methyl iodide.
Questions still to be answered include the effectiveness of the molasses mixture with other plant cultures such as strawberries, grapes and tree fruits that might be subject to the treatment in California.
Agricultural researchers, whether at the USDA or in private companies, are challenged to stay ahead of the negative pursuits of the environmental extremists who constantly challenge traditional uses of agricultural chemicals and practices, sometimes with flimsy evidence and overstated claims. The researchers are dedicated to preserving and protecting production of America's food supply. Farmers generally are not clear about the objectives of the environmental extremists.
The real interest should rest with food consumers who have a legitimate concern about the production of their food supplies. Hopefully balancing those concerns with enlightened, science-based environmental issues should result in the development of new and better methods of plant protection, and not as "slow as molasses."
Don Curlee operates his own public relations firm specializing in agriculture issues. His column appears in The Sentinel every Thursday. Email Don at firstname.lastname@example.org.