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Web Extra: Unseating Methyl Bromide

What happened when a small company thinks it can abolish a multibillion dollar industry?

By | January 1, 2006

In the 1980s, a college dropout named Louis Champon left his father's essential oils business to find a plant-based product that repelled animals. He tested various combinations concocted at various locations - including his kitchen sink -- on animals at a shelter. He discovered that one chemical, made up of ingredients from pepper and mustard, doubled as an insect repellant when a sprayed cockroach in his home died instantly. He formed a company, now called Champon Millennium Chemicals, based in Herndon, Va., and set to work making a profit with an alternative to methyl bromide, which, since plant-based, had the potential to be much less toxic to humans and the environment. But proving that turned into a formidable challenge.

Though the Montreal Protocol stipulates that developed countries would phase out the use of methyl bromide by 2005, there are loopholes within the agreement and countries, chief among them the US, continue to use the pest killer. Alternatives, however, are being sought. Though preliminary government research into the Champon product produced promising results, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided not to fund large-scale studies, says Jonathan Slevin, Champon general manager and a spokesperson for the company. While Champon has received private funding, the company faces a steep challenge in the marketplace without government testing to back up their claims. Slevin says that the government's decision stemmed from political issues with finding a replacement for methyl bromide (see "The Banned Pesticide in Our Soil" by Alison McCook, The Scientist, January 2005) rather than lack of efficacy.

No members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agreed to speak directly to The Scientist about Slevin's allegations. However, government memos obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request by The Scientist say that the Champon product, now called Dazitol, likely doesn't work, and it was this lack of efficacy - not a conspiracy - that led government scientists to recommend against further testing. Slevin, however, is not swayed by this information. The former journalist has spent years writing pages of angry letters and accumulating what he says is evidence of the ways that Champon has been wronged by the U.S. government and the methyl bromide industry. His records include hundreds of emails, letters, pictures, growers' reports, and numerous anecdotes from his various interactions with high-ranking officials.

The claims

In the late 1990s, a scientist named James Locke with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) ? the research division of the USDA - conducted preliminary soil tests with Dazitol, producing a poster presentation showing that Dazitol, which he called "pepper extract," reduced the population density of the pathogenic fungi Fusarium in soil by up to 99%. Then, according to Slevin, the government-funded scientist asked Champon if he could be included on the patent for the pest killer, claiming he discovered it had soil activity. Louis Champon refused and quickly obtained the patent for himself. The government then stopped all research on Dazitol, says Slevin.

The government tells a different story. In an ARS letter dated February 1, 2005, Caird E. Rexroad Jr., an associate administrator, wrote that Champon was asked to consider a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA. As part of a CRADA, Champon and the government would together own any "joint discovery and patent coming from the collaboration," but the company has "first right to negotiate an exclusive license to any inventions?that emerge under the agreement." Rexroad says that Champon "apparently interpreted this as an effort by ARS to take rights to their product," and chalks the entire exchange up to a "misunderstanding."

Approximately one year after Locke stopped his research, Champon was approached by Joseph Noling of the University of Florida, another ARS-funded researcher, who wanted to study the pepper product as a potential alternative to methyl bromide. He asked for samples. The company declined to send them, says Slevin, instead sending Noling a letter, cc'd to Kenneth Vick, the head of ARS's alternatives to methyl bromide program, saying they'd heard rumors Noling was a "methyl bromide advocate" and therefore might have a "conflict of interested in testing our product." Noling responded with an angry letter, upset that Champon would question his academic integrity.

Then, in Spring of 2000, Slevin came across a Noling co-authored article in Citrus & Vegetable Magazine that reviewed existing data on methyl bromide alternatives, including Dazitol. Based on a series of three small-plot field experiments, Noling and his co-author, J.P. Gilreath, concluded that all products, including Dazitol, "were always considerably less effective than the current industry standard, methyl bromide."

After he read the article, Slevin's first question was: how did Noling get hold of Dazitol? He fired off requests to the government and the University of Florida to find out more information, and received a letter in which Noling says he received the product in March, 1998 from "a Champon associate whom I would prefer to remain anonymous." The letter also included a photo of a bottle of the product used in the experiments.

But Slevin argues that the product in the picture has clearly separated, while Dazitol contains a surfactant that prevents separation of the ingredients. He believes that the product Noling tested was not, in fact, Dazitol, and the Citrus & Vegetable article was based on inaccurate information. Noling declined to comment for this story.

After the article appeared in 2000, Slevin says that US growers were unwilling to experiment with Dazitol, saying they had heard "mixed results." Eventually Champon ventured into other markets, and spent a few years pushing growers in the Middle East to try the product. Now, armed with favorable growers' reports from abroad, the company has renewed its efforts to break into the US market. (Though Dazitol sees a natural fit for organic growers, Slevin says Champon is hesitant to push into organic farming at this time. The company fears there is a lot of animosity between organic farmers and conventional growers, and if Dazitol became the "poster child" for organic farming, it would be even more difficult to break into the conventional market, he says. They do "plan on getting organic certification at some point," though, he concedes.)

But does the product actually work? A group of independent reviewers who looked over the data for The Scientist agree that plant-based products definitely have the potential to be less toxic, but they say more data are needed before anyone can claim the Champon product deserves to be tried on a large scale. Although the early results do appear promising, "to make the statement that (the Champon product) can replace methyl bromide is going a bit far," says David Pimentel, a pesticide researcher at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY., who claims no connections with the methyl bromide industry or the U.S. government that would preclude his objectivity.

Murray Isman, a pesticide researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is not surprised that Dazitol got initially promising results in the lab, but negative results from small field experiments, as reported by the government. Isman says he has worked on plant essential oils for another company, and in his experience, many products work well in the lab, but roughly two-thirds prove ineffective in greenhouse tests, and even more fail to pass muster in field trials. "That's what really separates the men from the boys," says Isman, who reviewed data from Dazitol, and says he has no connection to the U.S. government or the methyl bromide industry.

Unfortunately, says Isman, plant oils are made up of larger molecules than methyl bromide, meaning it is much harder for them to penetrate the soil and reach their target pathogens. Methyl bromide, in contrast, disperses very well, and quickly becomes a gas, which makes it both a very effective pesticide and a chemical that has the potential to travel throughout the environment.

That said, Isman notes that, in his experience, it's very easy to alter the activity of a plant-based product with even minor changes to the carriers, surfactant, adjuvants and emulsifiers. So if the product was altered in any way during the handoff to Noling, that could have a big impact on the results in a potentially positive or negative way, he notes. "It's not just having the right ingredient," Isman says. Indeed, University of Florida researcher Dakshina Seal, who conducted some preliminary Champon-funded studies of Dazitol, says that the company was constantly changing the product's formulation while he was studying it. "Quality control was poor," he says.

Isman adds that not all farmers are clinging desperately to methyl bromide, and growers' groups and local governments are always looking for new, safer and effective products. So if Dazitol works as well as Champon says it does, Isman believes growers would be using it. "My experience is that (plant-based products) generally don't work as well as conventional products," Isman says. "You often make a compromise by using them."

All reviewers agree that favorable growers' reports from the Middle East are not enough, and more data are needed before anyone can suggest that Dazitol is an alternative to methyl bromide. "Even water will make some bugs fly away," says Seal, who suggests a research- blinded field experiment that pits Dazitol against methyl bromide in multiple and random locations to get closer to the answer.

J.P. Gilreath, the University of Florida researcher and co-author of the Dazitol paper with Joseph Noling, has offered to continue to study Dazitol. Slevin, however, has turned down the offer, citing concern over Gilreath's past relationship with Noling.

Links within the article:

"Fact sheet ? 25th open-ended working group, second extraordinary meeting of the parties," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/ozone/mbr/MeBr_FactSheet.html JH Bowers and JC Locke, "Effect of botanical extracts on the population density of fusarium oxysporum in soil and control of fusarium wilt in the greenhouse," Plant Disease, March 2000. http://www.apsnet.org/pd/pdfs/2000/0114-01R.pdf

Additional links:

United Nations Environment Programme, Ozone Secretariat, Events schedule: http://hq.unep.org/ozone/Events/
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