The United States has been officially granted a one-year reprieve from a United Nations program set to phase out the use of methyl bromide. This is good news to the Georgia vegetable growers who depend on the fumigant to grow many of their crops.

Farmers in Georgia can keep using methyl bromide for squash, cantaloupe, cucumber, eggplant, pepper, tomato and strawberry production in 2005, said Terry Kelley, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

Vegetable growers use it to sterilize planting beds covered in plastic. This is an essential first step in controlling many devastating weeds and diseases before planting their crops.

The United States and 11 other countries were granted the critical-use exemption March 26, when international envoys met to discuss the issue in Montreal. The issue was discussed in Kenya last fall but wasn't resolved.

Except for exemptions, methyl bromide is slated to be phased out of production Jan. 1, 2005. The U.N. Environmental Program hopes to completely phase out its use by 2015. The program is authorized by the Montreal Protocol, a treaty signed by the United States and more than 180 other countries to control ozone-depleting substances.

The United States will be permitted to produce 7,659 tons of methyl bromide in 2005. This totals about 30 percent of what was permitted in 1991, the last year before the phase-out began.

“Without this critical-use exemption, we would have been left only with the existing stockpiles,” Kelly said. “But they have declined over the past decade and would unlikely last beyond the early-planting (2005) season.”

The Environmental Protection Agency determines how much methyl bromide each state can use. Georgia hasn't been told, yet, how much it will be allowed to use in 2005.

Without the exemption, Kelley said, it would be questionable whether Georgia farmers could grow certain vegetables, such as eggplants and peppers.

Georgia vegetable growers have already cut back on the amount of methyl bromide they use. But if they had to stop using it cold turkey, Kelley said, they'd lose $120 million in annual production.

The exemption is for 2005 only. The UGA Extension Service vegetable team has already helped the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association prepare and submit a critical-use exemption for 2006.

“The methyl bromide phase-out is one of the most critical issues facing the vegetable industry right now,” Kelley said. “It would certainly change Georgia's vegetable industry if we didn't have methyl bromide to use in the immediate future.”

UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences researchers and others across the country are trying to develop effective, economical ways to replace the things methyl bromide does so completely for vegetable growers. But it isn't easy.

Farmers will have to put alternatives to use in the near future. The price of methyl bromide has tripled in the past decade, Kelley said. So its economic appeal to farmers will begin to wear off.

Georgia's vegetable crop is worth about $680 million annually.